Avid advocate or candid critic

chaotic scene of a father holding his children, one is grabbing at his face while the other cries (criticism) - tots to teens

Are you your child’s most Avid Advocate or her Candid Critic? When someone accuses your child of misconduct, are you super-quick to jump to their defence, or do you judge and apportion blame? Should you defend them against criticism or prepare them for it? What’s right? What’s better? Is there a sweet-spot of balance somewhere in-between?

The Case for Avid Advocates

Our children should know that we’re always on their side, for at least three reasons. One, because they need someone in their corner: someone always in their team who can be relied on no matter what. Two, because if they know they won’t get into trouble for admitting they’ve done something wrong, they will come to you for help when they mess up. And three, because this way of parenting speaks to our instinct: it’s my child, and I’m one big dangerous Mama Bear, so back off.

The Case against Avid Advocates

We need to teach children right from wrong. We need to teach them that every action (good or bad) has a consequence. Most of all, we need to prepare them to be able to handle constructive (or not-so constructive) criticism at school, in sports, and later on in adult life. Wrapping them in cotton wool may make life easier now, but won’t help build resilient teens or grown-ups.

The Case for Candid Critics

When we give feedback to our children, it’s always well-intended and constructive. We’re thinking about their future and want them to improve their skills and realise their potential, so that they can succeed in a competitive environment. It’s not really criticism, it’s guidance and advice. Also, we balance any corrective feedback by offering equal amounts of praise for jobs well-done.

The Case against Candid Critics

Nobody enjoys receiving criticism, no matter how well it’s meant. Most of us will have experienced the discouragement that comes from being criticised, yet we fail to consider what effect our comments may have on our children. Frequent criticism is usually harmful, and it may cause our children to rebel, withdraw, or become neurotic as they strive for perfection.

Too much guidance will also be a fun-killer. “Don’t hit the ball like that, bend your knees, lower, lower,” can suck enjoyment out of golf faster than the club swings.

Solution Step 1: Process, not Person

Of course, the child’s personality will be part of equation. Some will be more sensitive to gentle correction, others might welcome the opportunity to learn. However, experts suggest that whether you deal with your child, your partner, or your colleague at work, it’s better to offer feedback on the process rather than on the person.

What exactly does that mean? They suggest using variations of these three basic questions:

  • “What do you think happened here?”
  • “What could we do differently next time?”
  • “Can you think of a better way to do it?”

Solution Step 2: Both Sides

Get your child’s side of the story first – yes, there is always another side. Emphasise with her feelings of anger, embarrassment, or frustration. Tell her it’s fine to have those emotions, but not to act out on them in a negative or destructive way.

Solution Step 3: Language

Avoid language of judgement, like “bad girl”, or “I don’t like it”, or “this was stupid”. Instead, acknowledge your child’s strengths, for example: “I know you usually behave well at parties”, or “You’ve painted a beautiful dog with his boy owner”, or “You’re doing really well at school”, before you move on to discussing the problem at hand: “At Suzie’s party, you threw chocolate cake at other children”, or “Do you think the boy owner might need a nose, just like his dog?”, or “That last spelling test showed you still need to work on some tricky words.”

Solution Step 4: What’s actually going on?

Try to pin-point the root of the problem. Did something happen at the party to make your child upset? Is she not confident enough to draw a human nose, unobservant, or a budding Picasso expressing their individuality? Is the spelling a warning sign that your child might have a learning issue, or did she simply forget to study this week’s list of words?

Solution Step 5: Consequences

Point out the consequences of the incident: people won’t like you if you ruin their parties, it’s a good idea to practice drawing difficult things like noses because you become a more-abled artist, knowing how to spell words makes school life easier.

Solution Step 6: Amends

Always offer your child the opportunity to make amends: say sorry, draw a nose, learn to spell “miscellaneous”. This will teach them to take responsibility for their actions.

Last Words

While you should always praise good behaviour and a job well-done, if you only ever offer applause, even for mediocre attempts, your child will learn to not value it as much – it may even discourage her from trying out something new, in case she’s not good at it. So don’t shy away from offering constructive feedback: the more often you do it in a loving and positive way, the better your child will become at receiving it, even if it’s from someone less loving and less positive than you.

What Your Child Could Say

  • If your child unintentionally breaks a rule at somebody else’s house or at school, teach him to say: “Sorry, I didn’t know about the rule” or “Sorry, I was having so much fun I forgot about this rule”.
  • If a teacher or another adult offers corrective advice on how to throw the ball, sit at the computer, stand up straight, whatever – teach your child to say: “Thank you, I’ll give it a go.”
  • If a classmate criticises your child’s drawing, teach him to remain calm and ask: “How would you make it better?” And if the bully responds with “By throwing it in the bin”, teach your child to respond with: “Well, that’s your opinion.”
  • Another way to respond to bullying criticism is to offer praise: “Yes, you’re right, my picture is a bit messy. Not like yours, yours is beautiful. You are so good at drawing.” It may sound wacky, yet it often works.

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