Do You Know about the Five-to-one Affirmation Ratio?

I think we can learn a lot about parenting from research that focuses on relationships and what either strengthens or weakens them.

Affirmations build respect and obedience in children

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

Researcher Dr. John Gottman, author of The Relationship Cure has studied thousands of couples to determine what promotes or diminishes the health of their relationships. One interesting outcome of this research is a ratio of affirmations to criticisms that appears to be extremely significant in determining how healthy and successful any given couple’s relationship is.

I think—and please know this is just my speculation— that we could use this information to inform us about healthy parenting interactions and therefore how healthy parent-child relationships might be.

What Gottman found and what was corroborated by the Harvard Business Review in a 2013 article entitled: “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio” by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, who were looking at what promoted effective business teams, was that ideally there needs to be 5-6 affirming statements to every one critical statement.

How often do you criticize your children?

Think about how often in any given day parents find themselves criticizing, judging or directing children as they try to help them be safe, responsible, respectful and obedient. “Don’t come into the house until you’ve cleaned off your shoes!” “You shouldn’t talk with your mouth full!” “Stop slouching—sit up straight!” Each of these implies that a child is not doing something correctly and therefore is a form of criticism.

Even directives specifically focused on promoting health and safety such as, “Put on your seatbelt,” “Don’t sit so close to the TV,” “Take your vitamins,” are not affirming statements. Many are necessary and certainly appropriate. It’s more about the ratio of these to the number of affirmations shared with children over the course of the day that is important.

What is an affirmation?

Affirmations tell children something positive about who they are, what they’re doing, and what they’re capable of doing. Affirmations praise, encourage, support and promote higher, healthier levels of self-esteem. “You got ready for bed as soon as I asked you to do that. That’s what I call being cooperative!” “You shared your cookie with your little brother and that made him very happy.” “I like how you keep trying to work out those difficult math problems. You are showing how determined you can be once you set your mind to it.”

Taking the time to be intentional about offering at least five affirmations to every critical statement or directive may be a challenge for some parents because we are so used to directing, disciplining and sometimes criticizing our children.

Stopping to make sure we offer a healthy “diet” of affirmations (many more than criticisms), can nourish our relationships with our children and help them grow positive self-images which can enhance and strengthen their abilities to try things, see themselves as capable and competent, and affirm that they are cherished by their parents.

Invitation to reflect:

  1. Notice the ratio of your affirming statements you offer your children to statements that are critical, judgmental or directive. How close are you to the 5-6 affirmations to statements that are more critical, judgmental or directive?
  2. Practice learning more about healthy affirmations that acknowledge each of your children’s worth, abilities, potentials and other positive qualities.
  3. Make sure you affirm yourself in a healthy ratio to the number of times you are self-critical. The health of your relationship to yourself can sometimes be a reflection of the health of your relationship to your children.

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network


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