“I don’t care” … and how to make sure they do

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“I Don’t Care” … and How to Make Sure They DoSometimes young people can seem to reply “I don’t care” to almost anything that parents and carers ask of them.

Is it true that young people have developed a level of apathy where they genuinely don’t care about anything that’s happening around them? Or is it perhaps that they have not yet learned to care at an appropriate or an adult level?

Several years ago, Marcial Losada and Barbara Fredrickson, two fabulous behavioural psychologists, worked on what became known as the Losada Ratio. They looked into how to build functional relationships where the people in those relationships genuinely care about each other. What they found was a very interesting ratio between the positive and the negative interactions within that relationship.

They found a very special ratio – that for every negative interaction in a truly functional relationship, there are approximately 2.9013 positive interactions. Practically speaking, that can be rounded up to three. If you can aim to have a relationship with your children where you have roughly three positive interactions with them for every negative interaction, then you can know that you’re working in the ballpark for building empathy and connection.

So, exactly how do you authentically manufacture those positive and negative interactions in your relationships with your children? There are two ways, and the good news is it works for both the positive and the negatives.

First, make sure that the interactions are quick. You don’t need to make a big deal out of everything that your child does. They don’t need an award. They don’t need a certificate on the fridge and they don’t need a new iPhone every time they say please or thank you. Just make sure that you acknowledge the behaviour in some way, particularly on the positive side.

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”
– Robin Williams

The second thing you need to do is make sure that the statements that you use, the language that you choose when you’re rewarding those behaviours, is affective. This is not the same as using language that is effective. Affective language articulates how the behaviour makes you feel. Examples of these would be:

  • “I love it when you clean up after yourself after dinner.”
  • “I’m so impressed that you chose to get yourself ready for school this morning and have a shower without being reminded.”
  • “It makes me proud to see you demonstrate sportsmanship after a game even when your team loses like they did today.”

The words that are the most important in those sentences are love, impressed, and proud – and they’re words that your child will learn to connect with caring.

On the negative side, the rule of being quick and affective is just as important. It means that the statements you use to correct behaviour are similar to:

  • “I’m disappointed that you chose to leave all of your dirty dishes in the lounge room.”
  • “It’s frustrating to me that your room is still a mess after the third time I’ve reminded you to clean it up.”
  • “I feel that you don’t respect our home and our family when you speak to me in such disrespectful language.”

The words used here, such as disappointed, frustrating, and respect, are the ones that will help your child to associate inappropriate behaviour choices with the way those choices affect other people in their lives.

The truth is that when your children tell you that they don’t care, the message that they’re delivering is that “I just haven’t yet learned how to care yet.” One of the jobs as parents and carers is to be the great care teachers in their lives.


Barbara Frederickson explains “The Positivity Ratio”
Bibliography: YouTube. (2019). Barbara Fredrickson: The Positivity Ratio. [online]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hFzxfQpLjM

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