Your children are like so much wet cement according to Time Magazine, in that they are impressionable at an early age. Your words and actions make impressions that will ‘harden’ over time and guide their sense of identity. A large portion of our job as parents is to guide, shape and correct them. When shaping behaviors, it is important to guard how much you criticize vs praise those you love. The same thing applies to your partner. Is complaining your habit? So what is the magic ratio?


How much do you praise vs correct? Right out of the gate, I want to assure you there is plenty of research that demonstrates that parents, teachers and coaches should praise more often than criticize. A higher ratio or amount of praise will produce the desired behaviors over time. What the studies say in terms of the exact ratio does not matter as much as raising your awareness of when you choose to encourage or correct.

The Magic Ratio In Different Settings

Dan Seigel, PhD, in his wonderful book No Drama Discipline,  suggests that even when you intentionally correct, it is important to emotionally connect first with your child, so that the child feels your love being corrected. The literature predicting the ‘correct’ ratio varies. Harvard Business Review says that a nearly 6:1 ratio in the workplace produces the best results. For teachers, anywhere from a 3:1-5:1 ratio has been demonstrated as effective. If all people hear is complaining, they tune out, or worse, internalize the inferiority.

The Magic Ratio For Couples

John Gottman and colleagues scored 94% accuracy predicting divorce in a ten year follow up study. They did 15 minute observations of couples’ positive/negative interactions. His conclusion was that a 5:1 ratio of positive response to another’s bid for attention would result in a lasting relationship. Here’s his story to illustrate this point.

Gottman reports he was in bed one evening all tucked up and ready to read the last 10 pages of his mystery novel when he glanced up and saw his wife through he bathroom door. She was standing at the mirror slowly brushing her hair, and looked very sad to him. Now, he knew he could have simply pretended not to see her, especially since he was dying to see ‘who done it!’ But instead he chose to respond and went into the bathroom, took her brush from her hand, and began to brush her hair. He asked “What’s wrong babe?”

That, my friends, is how you respond to a bid for attention, and hers was incredibly subtle. He could have easily ignored it. They could have both gone to bed, with this unspoken need never having been met. But that is like ignoring an open wound. Chances are good it will become infected.

I observe well-meaning parents, nag or criticize primarily out of the fear that they will be perceived as unsuccessful if their children are unsuccessful. Further, they don’t even realize this underlies their behavior; it is not done with malicious intent. This can lead to estrangement. It is their habit to repeatedly criticize in order to motivate (they think) their children.

The Magic Ratio And Natural Consequences

Does frequent criticism or complaining work? Sometimes you have to decide to let kids learn from their choices. Consequences are the most effective teacher. Obviously I am not talking about letting a child run into the street, and I acknowledge that every child is different in their need for guidance. It is also often situational. When kids are old enough, a good rule of thumb is to not offer advice unless you are asked. Or perhaps a gentle “Have you thought about…?”

When you hear others praise your child’s behavior outside of the home, particularly if they are doing well in school, and have friends and peers they happily associate with on a routine basis, they are receiving the most important messages. So if they occasionally save their worst behaviors for you at home, perhaps you can take it to mean they feel safe with you—not such a bad result. Following the rules all day at school or in other restrictive settings can be exhausting. It’s okay to let go of the rope a little bit.

The Magic Ratio And The Urge To Complain

Work on your urge to correct, complain and criticize. Be intentional, and focus more on catching your loved ones doing something right. Offer verbal praise, along with a hug, a wink, or a nod so they feel that you see all of them, not just the frustrating parts. Real impact happens when you witness them achieve something difficult on their own, especially when it is an area of frequent struggle, such as a tough subject, project, or difficulty with a friend or teacher. Get right there with them—that is what will stick! When they accomplish something difficult, acknowledge their achievement! This is what has lasting, positive impact.

If you wonder whether or not you are doing your best by your partner or your children, call or shoot me an email. I am right here in your neighborhood and ready to help. It can be overwhelming, this business of maintaining a healthy relationship, not to mention parenting!

Page Rutledge, LCSW, MSW, MPH is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker practicing in Wilmington, NC. She specializes in anxiety management and couples communication. Visit her website and blog at