Couples in marriage counseling tell me that working on their relationship often makes them better parents as well. That’s because certain principles-such as respect, empathy and effective communication-apply to all close relationships. If you were to distill the best marital advice into a single rule that would apply equally to parenting it would be: Accentuate the positive. I know this thanks to Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington, with whom I have co-authored books on marriage, based on his research. For decades he has painstakingly investigated why some marriages tick away happily while others explode like time bombs. Gottman has reams of videotapes which document couples in his lab, talking together about everyday topics as well as arguing and making up. He uses a scientific method to code their verbal and body language second by second, along with every change in their heart rates, blood pressures and other physiological measures of tension and calmness. Based on this data he is able to predict with stunning accuracy whether a couple will eventually divorce or stay happily married. Many factors figure into his predictions. But among the most salient is whether partners are habitually positive or negative in their interactions. Specifically, he finds that when couples are five times more likely to smile, talk pleasantly, and respond with interest to the other’s comments than they are to snipe or be critical, their marriage is likely to flourish. On the other hand, if the negatives outweigh the positives, the relationship is pretty much toast.
Gottman doesn’t recommend eliminating the negative altogether (it has a place in a healthy marriage as well) but to overwhelm it with far more positive moments. What works in marriage works with kids. It’s common sense. If your child feels you’re usually on her side, rather than on her case, she’s going to feel good about herself-and about you. There’s a huge payoff for her in the long run. And, for you-well, let’s face it: A happy child is a lot easier to get along with and discipline than one who feels under siege.
If you build up plenty of good will, your child assumes you love and respect her. And that means that your three-year-old won’t be overly traumatized when you do lose it now and then. It’s frighteningly easy to fall into a “no!” jag when dealing with little kids. The more you say “no,” the more children may ricochet from one outrageous act to the next. So choose your battles wisely. Like spouses, little kids can only take so much nagging. But unlike spouses, few of them (yet) have the guts to face you squarely, hands on hips and say “layoff!” Instead, they fling their fork on the floor, or take off their diaper without telling you, or do any of a million annoying things that may seem like calculated attempts to drive you nuts but are really innocent signs that they are feeling over- whelmed and don’t really know why. They just know things are not going the way they wished they would.
So help them out. Keep a little 5: 1 scale of kisses vs. hisses in your head. Make sure that on days when the “nos” seem to be ruling you dole out extra measures of hugs and laughter.