I've spent a lot of time blogging about how we should praise our kids, but someone asked me the other day if there is a correct way to criticize them. Good question. Here are some ideas, a couple of which I gleaned from from A Nation of Wimps by Hara Estroff Marano (Broadway Books, 2008).
- If you feel disappointed in a child's performance, approach the topic constructively. First, ask them to evaluate their performance themselves with questions like, "Are you happy with how you did?" and "Is there anything you'll do differently next time?" Ask them why they feel the way they do, and what they learned. Ask if there is anything they need to reach their goals that they aren't currently getting. Perhaps they feel like they need a tutor, to have more regular family meals, or to make a plan to watch less TV.
- Make it clear that you see failure as an event, not an identity. If a child is disappointed in her performance or an outcome, empathize ("I can tell you are pretty upset about this") and then help her strategize about how she can make things go differently next time. Try to engage them in what we used to call "Failure Analysis" in the product development industry—the process of collecting and analyzing available data to figure out what happened, and how to prevent it from happening again. Failure analysis, by its very nature, is a way of embracing mistakes as a way to learn and grow. Leave the "I told you so" out of the discussion; this is the hardest thing ever for me. Just flows off the tongue for me to say things like, "I asked you a thousand times to put your homework folder in your backpack as soon as you were done instead of waiting until the morning." Better to ask about times when things worked out well: "Yesterday you remembered your homework. What did you do then that you didn't do today?" Teach kids that the way to do better next time is to understand which efforts pay off and which strategies work.
- Never express anger when children make mistakes, or imply that you love them less. Mistakes are just mistakes; while they might need to be dealt with, they are never grounds to withdraw love.
- Accept that sometimes second best is good enough, and communicate this.
- Empathize when children make mistakes – ask them how they feel and then repeat that back to them. For example: "I can tell you are really disappointed" or "It sounds like you felt really embarrassed." Don't just replay how bad it feels – get to the part where having a failure doesn't matter anymore: "It sounds like that was really hard at first but I'm glad to see that you can laugh at yourself now."
Okay, so those five things aren't really criticizing your kids – just constructive ways to react when you feel like criticizing. Do you think it is ever okay to out and out criticize your kids? If so, when and why?
© 2008 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
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