THE FOUR-TO-ONE RULE
In my capacity as an outpatient child psychologist, I have
seen zillions of kids over twenty years. They come with all
kinds of problems and are embedded in families that usually are
not doing so well, either.
In my first year of practice, I realized something.
It took me about a year to figure this out. When I first
started working with families, I noticed that some families just
"clicked." They worked better with each other; whereas other
families only partially succeeded, or failed. I did not know
why. It did not seem to matter if they were positive--all of
them tried speaking and acting positively because we are all
know we should "think positively." When comparing the
successful to the less-than-successful families, it did not
matter what was their socio-economic status. Race, education,
religion and other factors made no difference.
What turned out to be the deciding factor was not whether
there was positive communication among family members.
No, it was the "ratio" of positive-to-negative messages that
was different in the successful families. It turns out that
we as mammals just need a greater amount of positive feedback
to feel good about ourselves, plus respond to changes in our
environment. Positive feedback makes us feel well
(positive reinforcers) and "other" feedback is anything
else--negative, or just neutral, which do not help us to feel
so well. The Four-To-One (4:1) rule is about the ratio of
rewards or positive things we say or do to our children
compared to the number of negative or other things we say or do.
In all interactions, there should be four positive messages for
every "other" (usually but not always negative) message.
(This also works with everybody. In other words, there should
be four positive messages embedded in our conversations with
anyone, anytime, relative to any other statements. The 4:1
rule should be common to all these aspects of communication,
because we as mammals seem to need that much to nurture our
good behaviors. It is the way we are wired.)
It turns out, the families that succeeded in making
meaningful psychological changes used the 4:1 rule, often
without realizing it. How did they do it? They picked
positive behaviors and "noticed" them four times as often as
they "noticed" negative behaviors. And crucial to this process,
the families picked the positive behaviors that "just happened"
to be the opposite of the negative ones they didn't like.
For example, little Jimmy has a habit of ignoring his sister.
The parents did not just focus on "not ignoring." They focused
on listening. The former is the absence of something negative,
which does not work well when trying to change behaviors.
The latter is the presence of something positive, which does
work very well when changing behaviors. (You cannot encourage
the absence of something, only the presence of something.)
In this case the family paid four times as much attention
to Jimmy when he listened to his sister and gave him a hard time
a lot less for ignoring her. The correct ratio to do this is
4:1; that is, speak up positively about Jimmy's listening for
every one time you jump down Jimmy's throat for ignoring.
This family spontaneously did just this.
This works extremely well for changing specific behaviors.
And, when the whole family is in on it, the process takes on
almost magic qualities. Each member of the family unwittingly
becomes part of a larger process whereby each reinforces not
just Jimmy's now wonderful behavior, but their own and others
in the family. Do not misunderstand the process though.
It is not that the family members are now going around
criticizing each other's "ignoring" or similar behaviors.
Rather, the family is now going around speaking positively
about any of the family's behaviors ("relative" to their
shortcomings.) It is just that the whole family is now
mindful of the correct ratio. This and a whole bunch of very
successful techniques for changing children's behavior can be
found through my website.