Dear Dr. T.,
What’s the best way to correct my children?
They are reasonably well- behaved [mostly], all different ages- but everyone needs some guidance and discipline, don’t they?
I am an avid reader of parenting materials and listen to many parenting lectures as well, so I know that punishment and yelling and screaming are counterproductive. But what’s wrong with criticism when needed? Can’t I tell my children what I think, what to do etc.
Yet, I read all the time that criticism is poison and that critical parents are the cause of many of our children’s problems.
So, I feel kinda helpless. If I follow what I think I am reading and hearing, I am just supposed to be positive, no matter what. I am sure I am missing the memo- because I don’t have a clue.
Getting our bearings in a shifting climate is a challenge. The pendulum has certainly shifted over the last few generations from a discipline oriented to a communication-oriented model: instead of a behavioral model with punishment as its primary tool, we are encouraged to communicate with our children in order to keep them on track. This is especially confusing for those of us brought up in the traditional way, or who have parents/teachers who urge us to use the previous methods.
Well, firstly, communication, or verbal instruction is not criticism. Criticism is attacking, cutting, demeaning, and degrading. It usually hurts more than it helps. Be honest: how do you do with criticism? How many critical comments can you tolerate a day? [Here’s a tip – for most people the number is 0!] How do you feel about the person criticizing you? Our children are no different. The very purpose of communication is to improve our relationship with our children – yet criticism makes it so much worse.
So, how do we communicate effectively with our children, particularly when there is something corrective to say? Or, is criticism totally verboten and we must only point out the positive?
There is a role for constructive criticism in helping the process of growing responsible adults. Done effectively, it is a learning tool-one of the many tools in our arsenal of educational props. But to qualify as constructive, as opposed to destructive, it must take into account that children have feelings- that are easily trampled on by bigger beings.
Here are some more qualities of constructive criticism.
-Infrequent- Ignoring is still the basic rule of chinuch. When possible, look away. Not every transgression is worthy of comment.
-Friendly, conversational, not harsh or angry. You are merely pointing something out- no need to get worked up about it.
-Descriptive--Non-judgmental- does not imply anything wrong with your child.
“There are a few things left on the table that belong in your room” rather than, “You always leave me a mess.”
-Proactive, not reactive – just because you are irritated by child eating with his fingers is no reason to react. Correct your child in the few areas you are currently working on, that you have pre-decided you were not going to ignore. Do not react to what irritates you at the moment.
There are other factors to consider like our tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. It also goes without saying that the language we use make a big impact on what we say. Neutral language- without any hint of negativity is also crucial. A plain statement of fact without any excess emotion is your goal.
Here is an idea that many find useful. State your comment, rather than ask a question. A question presupposes a judgment which then results in a defensive response by the listener. In particular, using the word ‘why?’ as an introduction to your comment is particularly judgmental.
Let’s look at some examples.
Why don’t you clean up your Legos when you are done?” vs. “Legos go in toybox.”
“Why did you forget to put my Binah magazine away?” vs. “Binah magazine belongs in the magazine rack.”
“Why are you late every single morning?” vs. “School starts at 8 A.M.”
"Why didn’t you do your homework this week?” vs. “Homework time is right after dinner.”
As these examples illustrate, turning the criticism into a question changes them from a mere statement of fact to an inquisition that questions the judgment, integrity, or responsibility of the recipient. Even a small child can detect the difference between the two and reacts accordingly. And, seriously, do you really expect -or want-your child to answer you when you ask ‘why?’
Growing our children takes more than love. It also takes knowledge, technique, and smarts to work with our children, so they feel our love and care. When our children can hear us and know that we care for them and are on their side, we are bound to get the results we work so hard for.