By Kenneth R. Ginsburg, McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Now more than ever, it’s critical that families, schools and communities understand how to raise children and teens to be emotionally and socially intelligent so they will thrive in both good and challenging times. The following excerpt is taken from “Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings,” (American Academy of Pediatrics, April 2011) by Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, FAAP.
The Downside of Criticism
All children have their own personal strengths, but too often we overlook them because we’re focused on what they do wrong or what their shortcomings are, especially as they grow from sweet babies to independent children and sometimes rebellious adolescents. Instead of noticing, appreciating, and praising their assets, we pay more attention to their weaknesses or faults because we want to improve them. This is where criticism creeps in.
Adults usually criticize with good intentions. After all, we have the mature wisdom children lack. But pointing out only their mistakes or what’s wrong usually puts them on the defensive. Instead of thinking objectively about what we’ve said, kids want to defend themselves. Criticism also shames them, which can breed anger and resentment. Criticism can make children feel inept — exactly the opposite of competent.
We must not be afraid to point out how they could do better, however. If criticism is offered without denigrating a child in a personal way, it can be helpful. Two basic points — the most important guideline is that criticism, like praise, must be specific; and when we want to help children get past a shortcoming, it’s more effective if our constructive criticism also recognizes their strengths.
Specific criticism points out errors that a child should avoid in the future. But no matter how upset you are by what your child has done, be careful to target the specific behavior and avoid making personal statements about your child. Two examples follow:
Jordan runs into the house, topples over the umbrella stand, tracks mud on the carpet, and leaves his rain-soaked jacket making puddles on the kitchen floor. It’s fine for his parents to say, “You’ve left a mess all over the place. We expect you to clean it up.” It’s not helpful to say, “You are such a careless slob. What’s wrong with you?”
When Takesha ignores her mother’s request to help with the dishes, it’s appropriate to say, “I really need your help now. You’re acting selfishly, as if your going out with friends matters more than my being able to relax after working a 10-hour day.” It’s not appropriate to say, “You are a thoughtless, selfish girl.”
When we need to point out children’s errors or shortcomings, it’s far more effective to build from their strengths. This is particularly true when they are stuck and don’t know how to accomplish or finish a task. Point out what they’ve done well in the past, ask what they’ve learned from that experience, and invite their suggestions about how they might use past experiences to handle current problems.
If we want to help children build competence, we have to help them develop their own strengths. We need to capitalize on real experiences in which they have learned appropriate skills and allow them to practice those skills and apply them to new settings. When they fall into difficulties, we can help them draw on those experiences as opportunities to learn to avoid or prevent similar difficulties in the future.
When we’re about to open our mouths and utter a critical comment, we should stop and ask ourselves, “How can I use this experience to help my child learn from this mistake without destroying her confidence or instilling shame?”
In his book published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg gives sound advice to parents, caregivers and communities on how to help kids from 18 months to 18 years of age build seven crucial “Cs” competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping and control so they can excel in life and bounce back from challenges. For additional information, visit www.healthychildren.org/BuildingResilience.