If you are anything like my wife, youʼre probably asking, “What the hell does ʻFive to Oneʼ mean?” I made Amy guess, so Iʼm going to make you guess too. Go ahead, guess.
Nope. Try again.
Sorry, wrong. One more time.
Wow, that was pretty dumb. I donʼt think Iʼll be asking you any more questions.
“Five to One” represents the magic ratio of positive to negative reinforcement that typifies quality relationships. “Good” relationships have a foundation of five supportive interactions for every corrective one.
The ratio is based in large part on the work of Professor John Gottman, who studied the interactions of married couples and claims that he can tell with 90% accuracy whether a marriage will end in divorce by observing the coupleʼs interactions for a mere 15 minutes.
At first blush, I thought this theory was a crock of shit. I learned about it at a mandatory coaches meeting for my son Malcolmʼs soccer league under the heading: “Filling Your Childʼs Emotional Tank.” (Needless to say, it was precisely this point of the presentation where it occurred to me to check my phone to see if anything remotely interesting was happening in the world.)
Even a cursory thought about the theory would suggest that it is not exactly ground-breaking stuff. Of course good relationships involve more positive interactions than negative ones. Thatʼs like saying couples who both have orgasms enjoy sex more than couples where the man finishes early and then falls asleep on top of his partner. Duh.
Then I learned a few things that made me change my mind. First, I learned that Dr. Gottman is bald, has a beard, wears tiny glasses and often rocks a tweed jacket without a tie. Iʼm pretty sure that I would do anything that a bald, bearded, bespectacled man in tweed would say. You donʼt get that way by being an idiot.
I also found out that Robert and Evelyn Kirkhart had previously applied the theory to the classroom and found that when the positive/negative ratio dropped below two to one, the child entered into a state of what psychologists called “despair.”
Being somewhat of a layperson on the subject of psychology, I have to assume that “despair” is a bad place to be and not really conducive to learning. (No word yet on whether Robert and Evelyn are bald and/or have beards, but one person referred to Evelyn as “handsome,” so thatʼs gotta be a good sign.)
I took all this information in and asked myself, where would I rather be: in a place where I continually got my ass handed to me, or somewhere where people said nice things to me a lot and occasionally handed my ass to me.
I figured the former place is happier than the latter. (Thatʼs why I always go to Prenatal Weight Management classes: “You havenʼt gained any weight! You havenʼt given in to any weird cravings! Wait, youʼre not a pregnant lady. Why are you here?”)
It is at this point of my little journey where my heart sank. “Hold the phone,” I thought to myself, “this doesnʼt just apply to couples bickering about how to load the dishwasher, teachers telling kids that there are no ʻOʼsʼ in stupid, and coaches needing to throw in an ʻatta boyʼ or two before lighting into a player for kicking the ball the wrong way.”
I have to admit that I got a little sick to my stomach when I realized that my relationship with Malcolm may be based on a ratio of compliments to complaints that was a little out of whack.
Quickly surveying our interactions for the past few days, I realized that our relatio (relationship ratio) was sitting somewhere at 1:10. For every compliment that Malcolm was able to squeeze out of me, I was hounding him about ten of the ways that he was disappointing me, and this made me really sad.
Sure, he makes a lot of mistakes, but does that mean he should have to deal with my browbeating all the time? Psychologically speaking, I didnʼt want him to “despair.” I would go for a solid “occasionally really sad for punching dad in the balls,” or “remorseful for repeatedly torpedoing play dates with strange behavior.”
Iʼll leave despair for those who enter an IHOP and attempt to eat anything.
Realizing all this, I have been striving for a more balanced approach to parenting. I got to tell you, though, it is really pretty hard. Why? Kids suck, plain and simple.
When they are not actively trying to make your skin crawl by pushing your buttons, they are inadvertently doing it by making mistakes. Itʼs easy to push the complaint ticker up, but much harder to get those compliment tallies sky high.
After some research and creative thinking, I have some thoughts to share in case you find yourself in a somewhat similar situation.
First, your compliments must be specific, sincere and timely. You canʼt repeatedly tell them about how awesome their APGAR scores were. Also, you canʼt quickly go through a whole bunch of meaningless stuff to get to what you really want to say, ala “I like your shoes, your hat and your face is nice, BUT YOU FUCKING SUCK AT CLEANING YOUR ROOM!”
Second, redefine behavior that is “positive” with behavior that is “not irritating.” The world of parenting becomes your oyster under the right filter. You get to say things like “Hey, pal, I didnʼt hear a single plop just now when you went to the bathroom. Thanks for closing the door!” and “I didnʼt see any milk on the floor after breakfast. What a clean eater youʼve become.” Once you start, it is easy to keep the ball rolling.
They say that merely paying attention to your kids fills their emotional tanks. (Who are “they?” Donʼt worry. “They” look like Dr. Frazier Crane, even the women. You are in good hands here.) When your kid is prattling on about whatever the fuck happened in the fantasy interaction between their stuffed animal and the remnants of the Sunday paper, stop what you are doing, listen to what they say, and then say something funny. They will appreciate it 100x more than, “Really? Thatʼs weird.”
Lastly, non-verbals count! Look at them and smile. Make a funny face for no good reason. Avoid standing over them in their bed wielding your chefʼs knife. Nod at them when they talk. Give ʻem a thumbs up from across the playground when they look your way. You know, the usual stuff.
I have a razor, good vision, a beautiful head of thick, lustrous hair and a love of hoodies. This probably means you shouldnʼt listen to a thing I say. Even so, could we all do a little better job of telling our kids about why we like them?
Probably. Try it, you just might like it. Five to one may be a little ambitious in terms of the ratio that you can actually hit, but youʼre ambitious, and thatʼs one of the things I like best about you. (1:0).
Paul is a stay at home dad in Oakland, California. He enjoys taking long walks on the beach with his fantasy football team. The only thing he enjoys more than taking care of his son Malcolm is dropping him off at school. He writes a blog because none of his friends with jobs will talk to him.