Is it possible to praise your children too much? Last year I spent a lot of time emphasizing the importance of growth-mindset praise, and as a result this is a question I get asked a lot. The corollary is about whether it is possible to be too happy, or to spend too much time emphasizing positive emotions. If we keep asking kids what they feel grateful for, will they stop telling us when they feel angry or afraid?
Great questions. I am never meaning to imply that I think we should only emphasize positive emotions and praise, that we should never utter a negative sound to our children. (Can you imagine?) Funny thing, there is actually research on optimal ratios of negative-to-positive.
Flourishing individuals—high functioning people who score well on things like self-acceptance, purpose in life, environmental mastery, positive relationships with others, and personal growth—experience a ratio of about 3 positive emotions to every negative one. Having more positive than negative "feelings is more generative—it's associated with more creativity and openness to possibilities," says Barbara Fredrickson, who pioneered this research.
John Gottman has shown that unless a married couple can maintain a ratio of 5 positive comments or interactions to every negative one, their marriage is likely to end. (Those that get divorced typically have slightly fewer positive interactions than negative ones.) Similarly, high performance teams have a ratio of almost 6 positive "utterances" to 1 negative.
Researchers conclude that because negative emotions and experiences affect us more dramatically than positive ones do—feelings of being frightened, for example, will generally stay with us for much longer than having a good laugh—we need to have more positive experiences and feelings to thrive.
Research also shows that there is an upper limit to the amount of positive feelings a person can take, however. Specifically, a ratio above 11.6 positive experiences or feelings to 1 negative can, ironically, turn a person sour. This is not something that I'm going to worry about, though. I mean really: if I leap too high I might also hit my head on a cloud.
So yes, it is possible to emphasize the positive too much, to dole out too darn much praise. But at least in my household, the challenge is not too much positive, but in keeping the ratio of positive to negative "utterances" from me to the kids around 5 or 6.
© 2008 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
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