April 8, 2024
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The Soggy Potato Chip Syndrome

These days, for reasons not relevant to this article, parents are spending considerably more time with their children than ever before. Of course, we are thrilled at this development. Isn’t this what we always wanted, the amazing and unique opportunity to spend quality time with our children whom we cherish more than anything else?

On the other hand, maybe this is becoming a less-than-ideal situation. Perhaps we are finding some aspects of prolonged togetherness less than ideal. Possibly we are discovering that some of our children’s interactions with others could be better, more polite or more mature.

This leaves us with the question of what we parents can do to achieve these goals. Other than setting the right tone in our homes and modeling the behaviors we hope to see, how can we get our children to behave properly and respectfully toward others?

Enter the Soggy Potato Chip Syndrome, a study that is the key to eliciting positive behavior from children. It is a strategy that does not cost any money, nor does it require visits to a behavioral therapist.

Studies have shown that children enjoy potato chips and that they will do almost anything to get some. (Please note that this study was done many years ago when the options for candy and nosh were considerably less extensive.) When faced with the choice of partaking from a bowl of fresh, crispy potato chips or from a bowl of stale, soggy chips, children obviously prefer the fresh chips. However, if the choice presented is an empty bowl alongside a bowl of stale, soggy potato chips, children will choose any chips over no chips at all.

The rationale behind the Soggy Potato Chip Syndrome is directly related to attention getting. All people, young or old, crave and enjoy positive attention. However, if they are in a situation where they are not receiving the type of attention they desire, they will settle for something less: negative attention.

Imagine a scenario where a parent is in the supermarket with a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old and needs to get the weekly shopping done. The parent is focusing on finding the groceries that are on the list and does not pay attention to or comment on the quiet, cooperative behavior of the children. However, if the 4-year-old suddenly pinches his/her sibling, there will certainly be a reaction, clearly a negative one on the part of the parent, but a reaction nonetheless. The older child has succeeded in getting the attention of his/her parent. It may not be the praise (aka fresh, crispy potato chip) that the child truly desires, but it is an acceptable substitute (even a stale, soggy potato chip is better than nothing.)

Contemporary studies recommend that one should try to maintain a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative comments. For every negative comment or criticism, adults should make five positive comments. Parents should be mindful of their general tone of communication and seek out occasions for positive feedback. The positive reactions should not be limited to verbal comments, but should include a tussle of the hair, a pat on the shoulder, and lots of hugging!

A story is told of General Moshe Dayan, the Israeli war hero and Minister of Defense who famously had a black eye patch. General Dayan was speeding down the highway when he was stopped by the police. The police officer was stunned when he recognized who the driver of the vehicle was, and he reacted as follows: “Minister Dayan! Why are you speeding? You should be setting a positive example for everyone!” General Dayan responded, “Listen here, officer, I have one eye. Where do you think I should focus it, on the speedometer or on the road?!”

We all have the option of choosing what our focus should be. We can choose to emphasize the positive and miss or pass over some of the negative things that may occur in daily life. Chances are that would end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, with our children striving to live up to the positive image we genuinely have of them.


Rabbi Eliezer Abish is a fifth grade rebbe at RYNJ and the author of a bestselling book “Portraits of Prayer.”

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