What Kind of Feedback Loop is Your Family?
by Meilin Obinata
When some middle school kids hack into a school district computer, and alters grades, as a parent, what is your reaction supposed to be? In the case of DJ Patil, his hijinks with friends, such as the hacking incident, earned him some well-deserved groundings. Yet, his father characterized his activities as ways of exploring his “creativity” and never doused his “flame” or passion for discovery. For the longest time, DJ himself did not trust his father’s perception of things and thought he was trying to pull a fast one over DJ. Eventually, DJ understood. DJ shared this story and other tales when he spoke at the Quinlan Community Center a few weeks ago.
An email from the Cupertino Library Foundation had described his “non-linear” path to success - a Monta Vista kid who graduated in “1992 near the bottom on his class due to ‘his high jinks and poor SAT scores’” yet became the first Chief Data Scientist at the White House. Who was this guy? Count me enticed! So I went!
RESPONDING TO ADVERSITY: RESILIENCE
He shared many interesting concepts about what helps children develop their full potential. One idea he shared is that the greatest predictor of success is one’s response to adversity which can include failure. I started poking around the interwebs to learn more about DJ Patil. I found this from his 2012 University of Maryland commencement speech: “The big take away I have from this is that tenacity and failure go hand in hand. Without both, you can’t move forward.”
This made me think about how each family is like a feedback loop. In DJ Patil’s experience, despite his many “failures,” such as his very weak GPA and test scores, he would receive some validation from his family about his strengths - creating, exploring, discovering, etc. So in his family, there was some kind of positive feedback loop. Is that what helps children become more resilient? Having a support system?
Which brings me to the question - what kind of feedback loop do you have in your family? When parents react to various decisions their children make, they might not be aware of what kind of “loop” they are creating. Is it negative? Positive? Neutral? Is neutral even possible? Something for parents to consider is HOW they are communicating with their children. When there is a conflict in the family, is the focus on problem-solving or making conclusions about personality, character, etc.?
How people manage conflict has everything to do with their mutual happiness and health - and also the health or dysfunction of the relationship overall. What happens if a parent and child do not agree? Impasse? Or are they able to work together to solve their problems? Lucky for us, researchers have studied this very issue.
CULTURE OF APPRECIATION / THE MAGIC RATIO
One renowned resource for analyzing conflict is the Gottman Institute, founded by Jon Gottman. He identified four behaviors to avoid - and their antidotes. He calls them the “four horsemen” of relationships because they are sure to bring about the END to a happy and healthy relationship. They are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Luckily, he also identified their antidotes: gentle startup, building a culture of appreciation, take responsibility and physiological self-soothing.
If you have never heard of these before, they could sound anti-intuitive and jarring at first, so I strongly recommend taking a few moments to learn about these and consider how this kind of dynamic applies in your family. In particular, I want to call out the “magic ratio” which Gottman found to predict happiness (and the longevity) of a relationship:
“There is a very specific ratio that makes love last. That “magic ratio” is 5 to 1. This means that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy [relationship] has five (or more) positive interactions.”
IS YOUR FAMILY WORKING AS A SUPPORT SYSTEM?
You might say, that sounds crazy! Five?! I have to say five nice things everytime I scold my child about a messy room, a bad grade, or not listening to Grandma? It’s worth thinking about these concepts as a starting point, not necessarily mechanically or numerically - to at least consider the IMPACT OF YOUR WORDS AND REACTIONS to your children. What kind of “loop” are you making? What is your goal, as a parent? To build a supportive team with your child?
The reality is, your children can do many things. But perhaps they will go farther if you work together, as a team and support each other in what you do. DJ Patil’s father could very well have killed the flame of curiosity in DJ and no one would be the wiser. Perhaps his teacher would write him off as a bad student who didn’t work “hard enough” or otherwise dismiss his potential. But what a loss! Aren’t we all better off when we have the opportunities to develop our gifts? Families are systems in which each person is contributing something. The next time you have conflict with your child, consider, what is it adding up to? What kind of feedback are you looping?