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, correct and discipline them. While this is all true, it is important to guard how much you discipline (or criticize) in the guise of discipline and how much you praise.

magic ratioHow much you encourage 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, no matter what the tiger moms say. What the studies say in terms of the exact ratio does not matter as much as your awareness of when you choose to either encourage or correct.

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 is why he/she is 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. 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.

Per Gottman a 5:1 ratio of positive response to another’s bid for attention will result in a lasting relationship.

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. It is their habit to repeat certain behaviors in order to motivate their children and prevent failure or perceived harm. Does it 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 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 happen to 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.

Work on your urge to correct and criticize unless you are very intentional, and focus more on catching your babies 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 children, call or email me. I can offer non-judgmental observations and insight that will help you answer the question “Am I a good enough parent?”

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 www.pagerutledge.com

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