“You know, you’ve been such an inconsistent parent! I don’t know what you really want. You don’t explain your rules very well. You punish me even for things that are not my fault. And when I need you, you are not there. You can’t even tell me you love me every day!”
Imagine that your child suddenly knocked on your door and issued a scathing tirade such as the one above. How would you feel? You might feel hurt, attacked, abused and unappreciated. You might feel like you never did anything right. Even if your child was just “trying to help,” you might still be left reeling in pain. Correction and criticism can be painful for anyone to hear – an important point to remember when you must offer criticism to your child. It is, however, possible to minimize the pain and destructive impact of criticism when one knows how to carefully present negative feedback.
To make your criticism as constructive as possible, consider the following tips:
Inquire – Don’t Lecture
In many cases, children are already aware of what they did poorly or wrong. Therefore, lecturing them about their failures and weaknesses just reinforces a disappointment they already feel. Instead of giving them a laundry list of bad calls, why don’t you just open the conversation with a gentle query: “Do you know what didn’t work for you?” Focusing on diagnosing where the problem lies is more constructive than tearing down a child’s already fragile self-esteem.
Choose a Teaching Moment
Don’t offer criticism when you are feeling upset or when the child is upset. Rather, wait for a teaching moment – a time when both of you are calm. Think of what you want your child to know and actually plan how you will present that information. Trying to teach a child an important lesson when either of you is upset is not only a waste of time, but can also be destructive. Lessons delivered with anger, sarcasm, ugly facial expressions, a raised voice and all the rest get lost in the sea of emotion. When you want the lesson to be learned, don’t allow the distraction of upset emotions. Wait till a calm and quiet time to provide education and redirection.
Coach, but with Permission
What if your child has no idea where the mistake lies? Then adopt the role of a mentor, instead of judge and jury. Instead of forcing your lessons, respectfully ask your child for permission to teach. “Would you like me to tell you how it could have been done differently?” Asking for your child’s permission doesn’t merely show courtesy on your part – it also makes sure that your child chooses to learn by saying “yes” to instruction.
Praise & Encourage
In any negative situation, you can always find something to compliment. In fact, just the mere fact that your child tried something new, or is currently listening to you, is cause for celebration. Don’t focus on the negative. Before you offer your correction and criticism, emphasize how proud you are for the right things they’ve been doing. In fact, try to use the “sandwich” approach: praise, correct, praise. This formula helps make negative feedback more bearable. “I like the way you are slanting those letters. Now if you just make them a bit taller they’ll look really nice – especially because you’ve formed them so well!
Explain the Effect of an Action
If you are giving correction and criticism because of a negative behavior, then see if you can share the impact it has on YOU. Refrain from making it about the child’s personal flaws. For example, instead of telling your child that he or she was irresponsible for not calling home after curfew, explain instead how worried you were and how much you would have appreciated a call. Kids are more likely to respond positively to a correction or a criticism when they know that their response matters to you on an emotional level. “When you forget to take the garbage out, then I have to do it as I’m rushing out the door and this makes me get a late start which then makes me feel tense and rushed all the way to work!”
Focus on the Behavior, Not the Person
You love your child; you always will. And no amount of misbehavior or bad decision-making can take away that love. But if you engage in name-calling and personal attacks, you communicate that your anger is personal and permanent. Instead of raising negative personality traits (e.g. “You’re so inconsiderate”), focus on the observable behavior (e.g. “You promised that you would help out at the garage today, but you went to the concert instead.”). The rule in family life is “never use negative labels no matter how accurate they may seem to be.”
Name the Behavior that You Want to See
Share your optimism for change by communicating the positive behavior that you would like to see in the future. This step is important, as it communicates that you see the mistake or misbehavior as a one-time episode and not a problem that can’t be solved. Kids tend to want to fulfill expectations of the people that they love, so communicating that your expectations are positive is a step in the right direction. “I know that you can get into bed on time by putting your mind to it.”