We parents have some experience in life. We’ve been through childhood and elementary school, sports teams and gymnastics classes, friendship dramas and sibling conflicts—and come out the other side, intact and now responsible for the health and welfare of the next generation. And so it’s natural for us to want to share the wisdom and skills we’ve acquired along the way, especially when we see our offspring making mistakes that can be fixed with a simple, loving word from dear old Mom or Dad.
“Sweetie, you wrote your S backward.”
“I had trouble hearing you at the play—you might want to look out at the audience. And smile.”
“You aren’t bending your knees enough at the plate, and don’t rest the bat on your shoulder.”
See, it’s natural. It’s helpful. It can set them up for greater success, help them overcome the challenge du jour.
I’m here to say: Parents, fight that instinct. Think it, imagine it, just don’t say it.
I now have more than a decade of experience in the role of parent, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned—and done so the hard way—it’s this: thou shalt not criticize your child, even gently.
It’s not that I am concerned about hurting my kids’ feelings, bruising their egos, or provoking a tantrum (well, maybe a little). I hold my tongue because my saying something would be counterproductive and do nothing to teach them whatever it is I am trying to teach them. It’s natural for kids to tune out when their parents try to correct them—or worse, for them to take it to heart too much and feel like it’s some sort of deeper critique or rejection of a part of who they are. Yes, that may sound dramatic to us grown-ups, but for kids learning to make their way in the world and, no matter how much they may deny it, eager—desperate, even—for parental approval, criticism that may seem small and constructive to us can come off as devastating to kids. Even the gentlest of constructive critiques can easily become the main story in our kids’ heads, pushing out the joy or purpose of the activity and souring them on something they’d previously been involved in.
That’s not to say we should be giving our kids false praise; that would be dishonest and counterproductive. It’s great to praise their efforts: “You’re working so hard at your letters (or baseball or ballet or whatever).” Let them know you notice and encourage their hard work. But the truth is, as hard as it is to hold our tongues, kids need to have the space to make their own mistakes and learn to fix them on their own.
Instead of direct criticism, there are ways to help your kids learn more indirectly. Perhaps you model the correct way of doing things, whether it’s sitting next to them to write your own letters or practicing your batting stance. As kids get older, it’s also possible to engage them in conversation about what they want from you in terms of feedback, with prompts such as:
“You’re working so hard to master that cartwheel. Are you interested in some help, or do you want to work on it yourself?”
“How are you doing in math lately? I see you’re working on your multiplication tables. Have any questions you’d like to ask?
“When I was young, I had a really difficult time learning to get the ball in the basket. Then my coach taught me some tricks. Want to hear them?”
And so on.
When one of my kids was quite young and first learning her letters, she’d inevitably misidentify some. “This is a C,” she’d declare confidently.
“No,” we’d respond, “it’s a D.”
“Well, I call it a C,” she’d respond, without skipping a beat.
Eventually, we learned to just ignore it and move on, confident she wouldn’t go off to college mixing up her C and her D. She schooled me, in the end, on holding back on the critique and instead allowing her to learn on her own, on just letting go, and allowing her to continue making her mistakes until she learned otherwise, on her own and at her own pace. And you know what? That’s just fine. She won’t be leaving for college mixing up her C and her D.