Have you ever thought about how often you praise your child? Do you start their day with a positive comment? What is your first interaction of the morning like?

The head of school for my first job as an administrator used to stand outside the building at carpool and greet every single child as they arrived, regardless of the weather or temperature. If he couldn’t be out there, he arranged for someone else to stand there as his surrogate. He felt that it was so important that each child begin the day with a positive interaction when they arrived at school.

Whenever I mention this story, someone invariably replies that this is wonderful because it helps increase the child’s praise to criticism ratio. They are referring to research conducted by Losada and Friedrickson that showed that a ratio of three positive comments to each negative comment was essential in supporting what they called “flourishing mental health.” Elsewhere, this positivity ratio has been cited as anywhere from 3:1 to 7:1.

Except, that this concept has been debunked because of flaws in the study’s methodology and the study was retracted by its publisher. This research took off like a rocket because it resonated with something that resonated internally with the public, that praise can outweigh criticisms if there is enough positivity.

While we feel that sufficient praise can outweigh negative comments, this doesn’t take into account the power of the criticism or the value of the target of the criticism to the individual. For example, it might take less criticism to outweigh a negative comment about your golf swing than it does to balance out a critique of your professional ethics. This isn’t any different for our kids. There are some parts of their lives that they place high value on and others just aren’t important.

All of this should help us think about how and when we use praise and criticism. Are you like my former head of school and do you start your child’s day out with praise and affirmation or do you lay into them because they forgot to do something? Does your child have enough positivity in their life that they can build a reservoir of resilience for handling the negative that will inevitably come their way? Are you modeling how to handle negativity in proactive, positive way or are you just letting it beat you down?

Also, we need to think about what we criticize and what we praise. In an earlier post, I talked about the need to pick and choose our battles more carefully which is a critical part of being an innovative parent. Criticism by another name is nagging and it’s not a terribly effective parenting technique. Will commenting about your child’s unmade bed before you head off to school help you or is this better left for a conversation later on?

The golden ration of 3:1 might be more psychological fiction than psychological fact, but appropriate praise doesn’t hurt. The key is making sure that you are thinking about what and how you are speaking with your child so that they keep the scales tipped in their favor, regardless of what the ratio might be.

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