Dear Dr. Ray,

I recently read that parents should compliment their children three times as much as they correct. Doesn’t that seem simplistic and rigid? Mothering by Numbers

Formula child rearing. The new, up-to-date, improved way to raise kids. You’ve come across but one small example in the relentless tide of psychological correctness, a movement that is threatening to turn parenthood into a series of techniques and prescriptions for insuring the outcome of a well-adjusted, competent child.

And the formulas are multiplying: one ask, one warn, one tell: more “I” messages that “you” messages; one minute for every year of age in time-out (or is it one year for every minute of age? I get that one all confused). However well-intentioned, too many experts are laying out their own personal yardsticks by which parents can measure their degree of modern, psychologically savvy child skills.

Even the word “parent” suggests this trend. It can now be a verb, as in “to parent,” or “to apply the proper ideas and approaches.” What used to be considered primarily a relationship infused with love, supervision, discipline, and openness is increasingly being codified into what are “appropriate parenting practices” (such as active listening, time-out, “I” messages) and “inappropriate” ones (spanking, saying no to a toddler, written apologies).

Certainly parents need skills and experience and practice. They must be willing to learn, from everywhere, even experts. But solid parenthood will always be grounded on the intangibles: love, good judgment, morals, and common sense. These virtues resist being reduced to a simple set of do’s and don’ts, applicable to all parents, all kids, and all situations.

In defense of the “three compliments for every correction” idea, the intent may have been to underscore a broader guideline: Encourage and praise more than you discipline. Doubtless, this is tougher with some kids than others, but it’s something to aim for. As we noted before, in general, the more you notice the good, the less you have to bridle the bad–up to a point, that is. But all kids will require some discipline, no matter how positive their parents may be.

Like you, I’m very uneasy with such numerical advice. It implies there is a correct “amount” of parenting advice, and that this amount applies pretty much across the board.

Even if this were true, what parent could keep track of the proper ratio for just one child, let alone two or more? I can picture my wife running to the refrigerator after every encouraging word to make a hatch mark in the appropriate column. Actually, after I told her about this idea, she did say, “That doesn’t seem so tough,” and then proceeded to tell my daughter, “Hannah, please eat your toast over the table … and I like your sweater, your teeth look clean, and I appreciate the way you’re keeping your food in your mouth.”

Maybe I could get her to use the three-to-one ratio with me. I’d settle for two-to-one. Then again, maybe I haven’t earned it.

Discipline That Lasts a Lifetime Pages 32-34
Copyright © 2003, Raymond N. Guarendi, Ph.D.
Servant Publications