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Love: It's All in the Ratio

Love: It's All in the Ratio

Love is the only real power a parent has.


An excerpt from Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice.

The most important parenting strategy is that of building a positive relationship. Although a parent cannot make a relationship all alone (it takes two people!), a parent can do those things that typically create the "soil" in which a positive relationship can grow. Keep in mind that love is the only real power a parent has. You can't beat children into accepting your values. You need to inspire them.

Ultimately, children will identify with a loved parent and want to emulate the parent's strongest positive traits. Children will work to please a parent they care for. They will also accept guidance and direction from such a parent. (This may take longer to show up in a "difficult" child, but even here, the effects of a positive relationship are dramatic.) Getting a child to listen or a teenager to cooperate is primarily about setting up the conditions under which they choose to do so. Besides being illegal to use brute force to accomplish these goals, it is an impractical methodology. Even children have free will.

What can parents do to lay the groundwork for a positive, loving relationship? They can maintain the magic ratio in parenting, what I call "The 80-20 Rule."

The 80-20 Rule

Eight out of 10 parenting moments should be pleasant ones from the child's point of view.

Simply put, parents' words and behaviors should feel good to the child 80% of the time. That is, eight out of 10 parenting moments should be pleasant ones from the child's point of view. Ideally, 100% of parental interactions are meant for the well-being of the child; however, not all interventions feel good to the child. Although dental work is good for our teeth, it doesn't feel good to us and we don't look forward to getting it done. If we had to endure dental work all day, every day, we'd soon be insane. Similarly, criticism might be good for a child on occasion, but endured all day, every day, it would soon cause severe mental illness. It's all in the ratio.

Typical good-feeling interactions include smiling, hugging, touching, giving compliments, praising, using affectionate names, verbalizing love and affection, listening, playing, joking, giving treats and gifts, showing understanding, showing interest, sharing ideas and helping. (How much of this are you doing between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m.?) Even if a parent is singing a tune to himself while he is making coffee in the kitchen, it counts as part of the 80% positive if children are around to hear him. The happy singing sets a good-feeling mood in the house. Similarly, parents having a little laugh between themselves counts as part of the child's 80% if the child overhears it.

Typical bad-feeling interactions include yelling, criticizing, correcting, looking angry or displeased, complaining, ignoring, reprimanding, threatening, punishing, nagging, lecturing, interrogating, insulting, supervising, commanding, directing and instructing. Note that the last three essentially amount to "asking a child to do something."

Simple requests are included in the bad-feeling interactions because people -- even children -- don't like being told what to do or asked to interrupt their current activity. If a parent is in his or her own bad mood and is muttering curses under his or her breath and slamming cupboard doors as he or she is making coffee, it counts as part of the 20% negative allotment if the children are within hearing distance. Similarly, if the parents are having a stressful, unpleasant or hostile interaction within hearing distance of their child, it counts as part of the child's 20%.

What's in a Number?

What do you think your current positive-to-negative ratio is? If you want to find out, ask your kids and spouse what they think, but make sure they include all of your requests and instructions in their calculation. Alternatively -- and probably more accurately -- turn on a video camera or tape recorder to record your interactions with your children during three separate hours: the hour before school, the dinner hour and the bedtime hour. Record yourself for several consecutive days or longer so that your "natural" behavior will occur with your children rather than your contrived "good parent" behavior that is inevitable on the first couple of recordings.

After you've recorded your interactions with your children, select several 10-minute sections to play back, stopping the tape every minute and noting whether your behavior in the minute seems to be a "good-feeling" behavior (from the child's point of view) or a "bad-feeling" behavior. Be sure to include all sarcastic remarks, instructions, directions, requests, criticism and threats in the "bad-feeling" communications. Remember that there are no "neutral" moments because human interactions always have a feeling quality to them, even if only a very slight one. How did you do?

Research shows that the average parent is giving 94% negative to only 6% positive attention!

Do you want to know how the average parent does? Remember, the average parent "loves" his or her child! Most parents feel that they are giving lots of positive attention to their kids. However, when they add up their minute-by-minute interactions, the ratio is not likely to be anywhere close to 80-20! Research shows that the average parent is giving 94% negative to only 6% positive attention! How is that possible? Easy.

Picture a typical parent-child interaction at 5:30 p.m. in a home where there are two boys aged 8 and 10. Look at Mom's words and decide whether each statement would likely feel good or bad to the boys:

"David, please put your jacket in the closet, where it belongs."
"Josh, stop teasing the cat right now."
"Boys, let's get started on the homework. Get your books out."
"David, where is that page you were supposed to do? Why isn't it here? I asked you to make sure you brought it home. I'm going to have to give Mr. Spencer a call again. This is totally unacceptable."
"No, Josh, you can't eat until we've finished this work."
"I know you don't like fish, but that's what we're having tonight. Now get started on these questions. . ."

It's not that Mom doesn't love the boys. She obviously does! She wants them to do well in school, she's clearly concerned about their habits, and she's prepared a healthy dinner for them. Yet her sons experience her as a pain in the neck. The ratio in the above communication is 100% negative to 0% positive. It's no fun being around Mom! Would that ratio work in marriage? (I don't suggest you try it to find out.)

Because so much of the parenting day consists of giving kids instructions, making demands, offering corrections and criticisms and making threats, it is actually quite challenging to create that 80-20 ratio. Challenging, but not impossible. Practice makes it second nature (after 20 years or so), but even after only a few weeks, you'll find it easier. And you will find that this ratio makes parenting much less stressful.

Here's a trick to get you started: in the morning, in the hour before the kids leave for school, put eight pennies and two quarters in your right-hand pocket. Each time you give a positive form of attention (a positive stroke), move one penny to your left-hand pocket. Each time you give a negative form of attention, move one quarter over to your left-hand pocket. You only have two quarters, so when you've used them up, you must move the remaining pennies before you can give any more negative strokes. When all the pennies and quarters are in your left pocket, move them back to the right -- positive strokes move pennies and negative strokes move quarters. You can continue this game when the kids come home from school. Soon you'll be an 80-20 expert!

Now you might be wondering why the ratio has to be 80-20. Wouldn't 50% positive and 50% negative be good enough? No! The reason that a 50-50 ratio just won't do is that negative attention weighs much more than positive attention. One criticism can wipe out 20 pleasant remarks. Just think of a time you spent an evening with someone and the whole night went well except for the one negative comment they made about you. Didn't it ruin the whole evening? Indeed, a single intensely negative remark can sometimes ruin an entire relationship. In parenting, think of each mild bad-feeling action as "undoing" 20 positive ones and each intensely bad-feeling action as wiping out hundreds of good-feeling words and actions that you've invested in your child. It is clear that, as unfair as this seems, we need to give out many more positives than negatives in order to keep the overall atmosphere positive.

The 50-50 Rule

For you 50-50 fans, don't despair. There is a place in parenting for this ratio. The good-feeling attention is divided 50-50 between "free" positive attention and "earned" positive attention. Another name for free positive attention is "unconditional love." Earned positive attention is called "conditional love" or "positive reinforcement."

Both types of love are necessary for a child's growth. Here are some ways of showing unconditional love:

  • Saying things like: "I love you!" "You're the greatest in the whole wide world!" "You're the most brilliant, wonderful, beautiful. . ." "You're delicious!" "You're gorgeous!" and any other exaggerated form of global praise.

  • Buying a child a gift for no particular reason.

  • Making a favorite meal for no reason.

  • Playing and/or joking together.

  • Talking together "adult-to-adult."

  • Hugging or affectionately touching a child for no reason.

  • Listening and showing interest, sympathy or support.

  • Sharing a pleasant activity (e.g., watching a movie together, shopping, baking).

  • Going on an outing just for fun.

All of these kinds of behaviors convey general acceptance, adoration and support. They help give the child a strong inner security. However, children also need to know when they're on the right track. Is it better to eat with your hands or with your fork? Does it matter whether you shout or whether you speak quietly? As soon as a parent indicates pleasure at a preferable behavior, they have given a conditional form of attention. All parents have preferences. Some will be pleased by a youngster's good grades, some will be delighted with a child's wit and some will be proud of the child's ability to be assertive. What parents are pleased about varies. However, the result of the unavoidable expression of parental pleasure is that the child gets positive attention because he or she is on track. Because it is generally pleasant for the child to receive positive conditional attention, this intervention contributes to the strength of the relationship even as it helps the child to achieve age-appropriate goals.

Here are some ways of showing conditional love:

  • Acknowledge the desirable behavior. ("I see you're getting dressed by yourself.")

  • Praise the desirable behavior. ("That's very neat handwriting. You've done a great job!")

  • Label the desirable behavior. ("That was really brave of you.")

  • Reward the desirable behavior. ("I think that deserves a game of chess.")

  • Hug, pat or smile at a child because he just performed a desirable behavior.

  • Give the child a treat or gift because he just performed a desirable behavior.

  • Go on an outing with the child because he just performed a desirable behavior.

As you can see, the same parental action can be given either conditionally or unconditionally to the child. When it's given conditionally, it tends to increase desirable behaviors. When it's given unconditionally, it builds inner security.

We have a tendency to forget to give the older child his or her needed unconditional positive attention.

Optimal development requires an equal dosage of I-love-you-for-no-reason messages and I-notice-you're-on-the-right-track messages. It is easy and natural to give our very young children this ratio. However, as children mature, their cuteness wears off a bit. We stop adoring them all day long and begin to focus in on their performance. As a result, we have a tendency to forget to give the older child his or her needed unconditional positive attention. Instead, the positive attention we give tends to be largely conditional.

Unfortunately, when a child receives plenty of conditional positive attention and not enough unconditional positive attention, he may, as discussed earlier, feel deep insecurity. "Do you only love me if I get an A on my report card, mow the lawn, look attractive and succeed socially? Do I always have to earn love? Do I have to be perfect for you to find me acceptable?" This sort of insecurity can, in vulnerable teens especially, lead to perfectionism, anxiety and depression.

Always be careful to balance conditional love with unconditional love, no matter what the age of the child. Even adults need a generous dose of both! Ideally, unconditional positive attention should be sprinkled like sugar throughout the parenting day, every day for the first 20 years.

An excerpt from Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice.

May 27, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 11

(11) Anonymous, July 8, 2006 12:00 AM

great article!

what a great article! i especially liked the exercise with the pennies and the quarters. and in response to "Feel Good?", i once read that "a child who feels good, acts good" and that is so true. so yes, it is our job to help our children "feel good". WE know that life is not about feeling good, but children don't. if we don't help them to feel good, they will turn to others who will. and in terms of discipline, the author has good advice there as well!

(10) Lesley Hubbard, July 2, 2006 12:00 AM

Feel Good?

80% of parental words to a child should "feel good to him/her?" Heaven help us all. If 'feeling good' is so important, why don't we all just do our thing so we can feel good? Life isn't all about feeling good. Without proper discipline, which may not make the child 'feel good' at the time, we'll have more and more uncontrollable kids. My folks sure as heck didn't worry about making me 'feel good' every moment of my life; however, they did a very good job of instilling the values of life in me that ever kid needs, whether it 'feels good' at the time or not!

(9) jose antonio, May 30, 2006 12:00 AM


this is what people need to read an put on practice to get batter way of living. shalom. we need GOD´S WISDOM.

(8) Larin R. Kerr, May 30, 2006 12:00 AM

80-20 Rule is Golden

This great grandfather wishes he knew the 80-20 Rule when his children were little. In spite of my poor parenting skills-which did improve-my 5 chlldren make me proud. Great words of wisdom!

(7) Adam A, May 30, 2006 12:00 AM

Inside vs. outside the home

This comment is in response to "Horsefeathers," which asserts that too much unconditional love at home will leave a child unprepared for the harsh reality of the world. On the contrary, I think that children are smart enough to differentiate their home environment from the environment outside of the home at a very young age. A positive home environment will create an oasis in the harsh world, which is desperately needed, just like Shabbos is an oasis in the week (and surely kids can differentiate between Shabbos and the work week, so they can between the home and the world). A loving home, rather than softening or spoiling a child, will strengthen him and prepare him to deal with more difficult situations. Also, most importantly, it will teach him that a loving, nurturing environment is "normal," and thus he will look for that when choosing a spouse and when raising his own children. As Jews, we have a responsibility to not only sanctify the Shabbos day, our food, and our actions, but also our home environment. The truth is, the world SHOULD be loving, and we SHOULD be made to feel good 80% of the time, and even all the time. We cannot snap our fingers and make the world this way, but we CAN work to make our homes this way, and that in turn will begin to elevate the world.

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