Thinking critically about constructive criticism

Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain—and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.

Dale Carnegie

I’ve been writing a lot about destinations recently, and less about the the thoughts and changes that our journey is triggering. But the truth is that these internal adventures are even more important, so today I’m switching gears to a topic that been on my mind a lot recently.

The travel mindset

Traveling can make a person a little more open-minded – at least temporarily. We arrive in a new place as outsiders; it’s obvious we don’t belong, don’t understand the culture, we don’t assume we know what’s best there, or sometimes even how we’ll get our next meal. We are not critical; the default position is openness and a willingness to learn. The fun of travel is the discovery of new things: people, places, ideas.

My parenting mindset

I’ve enjoyed the exercise of being open-minded and uncritical on a regular basis while traveling and I’ve seen the enormous benefits in terms of friendships made and lessons learned. But when it comes to our kids, and especially in our efforts to educate them while we’ve been traveling, it’s obvious that this openness and humility is not my default approach. In fact, there is an aspect of my personality that has emerged in the last year, and I’m not sure I like it: too often my default response to my interactions with the boys is to voice constructive criticism.

The critical reflex

I don’t mean to be critical. I’d love to be more positive and easy-going, but rather than accepting things the way they are, I can’t seem to help seeing things through the lens of “how could this be better?” Implicit in this approach is the assumption that I know what’s best and my judgment of the situation at hand is justified. Too often the first thing out of my mouth after reviewing some of their worksheets or reading a story is a little bit of “constructive criticism”. The problem is, I’m not sure it’s constructive.

It’s an easy behaviour to justify. My intentions are good. The feedback is valuable (at least I think so). If they’d listen, their work would improve. And they try to take the advice without complaint – I can see that – but I can also see the hurt that I’ve caused with my well-intentioned critique.

I’m also a hypocrite

The irony is that I was horrible at accepting constructive criticism as a kid. I remember being crushed by feedback that, in hindsight, was meant to help me. I couldn’t separate criticism of the situation from criticism of me. It felt like a personal rejection. Criticism wounded rather than motivated.

Now I know that this hyper-sensitivity as a child led to an adaptation: if I am more critical of myself than those around me, I can stay ahead of that rejection. Over the years I’ve managed to channel and filter this capacity into a more or less functional state of being that is not too disagreeable (I hope) to those I care about. We can call it “drive”, “high personal standards” or any number of euphemisms, but it’s a tendency I need to keep in check.

Parenting and criticism go together – right?

Isn’t criticism necessary? We can’t just accept the status quo with our kids when we know they’re capable of more! They need to toughen up, learn to accept the criticism and use it to improve – right? And what better way to help them do this than to provide more constructive criticism??

I used to believe all of that, but having more time with the kids has made me less sure of myself. Clearly, I don’t have this all figured out, so I did a little digging, and I’ve come across some interesting information that is making me rethink my assumptions.

What the experts say about criticism

It turns out, criticism – even “constructive criticism” – usually fails because it comes up against two aspects of human nature that directly oppose it.

  1. We hate to be devalued; and criticism devalues
  2. We hate to submit to someone else’s will; and criticism calls for submission (reference)

So, the effect of criticism is that it often causes anger and defensiveness – most people won’t reflect and change, they will dig in. And here’s the worst part – even if they don’t overtly resist, criticism results in decreased motivation and engagement. That’s right, negative feedback does not lead to behavioural change; it leads the receiver to withdraw, avoiding that situation, and the giver of the criticism, in the future.

Not seeing the big picture

Any short term gain we get through criticism of our kids – often resentful submission – builds long-term resistance, withdrawal, and insecurity.

For all my good intentions with the boys, this is exactly what I don’t want! I want them to be excited about learning; happy to spend time together! Is it worth pointing out the implausibility of a plot line if it makes my kid not want to write another story? Will he be motivated to learn algebra if all I talk about are the mistakes? I know how badly I used to shut down in the face of criticism; how can I expect them to be any different?

I can’t. What I have to do is figure out how to motivate and facilitate their development without resorting to criticism.

My anti-criticism goals

So, in my ongoing efforts to be a better dad and not totally mess up the little humans I find in my care, these are the things I’m going to try to improve on:

  1. Always look for the good stuff and talk about that. Positive reinforcement is far more effective than negative reinforcement anyway. Appreciate the good so they know what the good is.
  2. Remember they are kids. They need time to progress at their own pace; I shouldn’t judge them by adult standards.
  3. Ask them if they want feedback. Constructive criticism only works if it is wanted.
  4. Choose cooperation over criticism. Ask how we can work together to make the next time even better.
  5. Be gentle. If it must be done, give the feedback with kindness, in private, being open to their thoughts and perspective.

The even bigger picture

This is a tall order for me. Of course, it isn’t just about learning either; it’s about all of our interactions. Like many parents, I find myself scolding the kids over and over again for the same things: Owen is absent-minded, Jake is too sensitive, Ben can be reclusive, and Eli can be wild. Am I really helping them by criticizing the same things over and over again? Maybe it’s me who needs to change. Maybe I need to look at my expectations and my approach.

Final thoughts

This is not to say there is no role for constructive criticism in parenting – of course there is. But, even though it has been my go-to parenting strategy, I’m starting to think it should be a last resort instead. Truly bad behaviour can still be punished, but if it’s a matter of facilitating improvement, I need to remind myself that there are likely better ways.

Every day with the boys is a new adventure; perhaps we’d be better off approaching them the same way we approach a new travel destination: with a little more openness and humility. I imagine this more compassionate attitude – if I can pull it off – would prove to be ideal for the rest of our lives too.

“I will speak ill of no man, and speak all the good I know of everybody.”

Benjamin Franklin

“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.” 

Abraham Lincoln

31 Comments

  1. Good luck with that!

    Maybe a frontal lobotomy will help. Actually try getting help to improve parental skills, like you had to develop skills to become a doctor. That’s if you are serious about it vs muddling thru on your own with 4 pint size lab rats to experiment on.

    Enjoy your kids…

    1. Hmmm . . . I’m trying to interpret your comment with charity, but having a bit of a hard time. If you are indeed questioning my ability to parent based on a post in which I voluntarily open up about a personal struggle and resolution to improve, I would be very interested to hear both your qualifications to give such advice and any other alternatives you can think of re: “getting help”. Unfortunately, frontal lobotomies are hard to come by these days 😉

      Wait . . . is this a test to see if I respond critically?? – damn. Failed again. But seriously, am I misinterpreting your meaning here?

      1. Yes, you eventually caught on… IT WAS EXACTLY THAT KIND OF TEST.

        I got ya…

        That was fun…

        Now relax and enjoy your kids.

        You crack me up, mate.

    2. Wow Mel! I have no words. . . just kidding, I have SO many words! First of all, I would like to thank you for your comment. It was a great teaching moment for our kids (or as you so kindly referred to them as lab rats). Our kids read our blog. They love that we have a record of our adventure. At dinner, we shared your comment with them. They have all asked if they could reply to you. I think that’s reasonable. Stay tuned for that. . .
      I personally find it ironic that you made a very critical comment on a blog post about how we as parents could improve on this topic. So I am left a little confused as to where you stand on the matter. Are you angry that Matt has realized that there might be a better way or are you angry that we didn’t figure this out sooner?
      I would like to applaud you on the fact that you are clearly the perfect parent. Not all of us are fortunate enough to have every ounce of parenting figured out. Matt and I spend a lot of time discussing our kids and how we can be better parents. What works for one of our kids may not work for another. I think the fact that we are willing to admit that we don’t have all the answers is teaching our kids that they don’t have to have all the answers. But I am so glad that you do as I am sure your children are perfect.
      The one thing that I think we have figured out is how to teach our children kindness (although you are certainly testing mine right now). I am thrilled that we have been able to travel the world and show our kids that most people are kind (obviously with a few exceptions).
      Thanks again for giving us a wonderful teachable moment.

      1. The point was that NONE of us have all the know how to be a parent…. so relax and enjoy your kids. Hoping the talking point was that you guys are doing great inspite of Dad being too hard on himself. Aren’t Dads almost always hard on themselves. It is a guy thing. We want the best for our families. Kind of our job to be the best for our kids. From the comments of the kids they seem to think Dad is doing great and they couldn’t be prouder.

        It was a sort of gag on Matt and he did get it. I knew he would finally see that.

        You guys are too much fun. Just relax and have fun…

        My motto is “Enjoy the moment” because we all know how life can change in an instant.

    3. Don’t call us lab rats! My daddy doesn’t need brain surgery. My mommy and daddy don’t need parenting help either. I feel very lucky to be traveling with my whole family and I really like my mommy and daddy as teachers.

      1. It was an adult joke in response to how hard your daddy is on himself. Isn’t it super cool to travel all over the world. You are lucky to have super cool parents.

    4. I don’t think my mom and dad need any luck. I think my dad’s new ideas are really good.
      I don’t really understand why you are so worried about my mom and dad’s parenting. I think they are awesome parents!

      1. Your parents are awesome! It was an adult sarcastic joke in response to your Dad self criticism. He is too hard on himself. You guys are having so many cool adventures.

    5. I feel like if you met us in person you would not think we were pint size lab rats. I think your comment was rude and it was not appreciated. I am surprised you are an adult because I would be in so much trouble if I left a comment like yours on someone’s blog.

      1. It was an adult joke in response to how hard your daddy is on himself so I wouldn’t think you could appreciate it. I am 30 yrs older than your Dad. Been there, done that. In 30 yrs he might see his comments differently and be kinder to himself. He is a super cool dad taking all of you on fantastic adventures all over the world. Who gets to do that, eh?

    6. I, as a human being (not a pint size lab rat), appreciate the art of experimentation and improvement on existing methods. I am happy to be part of a family that is willing to try new things. I am also happy to be part of a family that chooses kindness.

      1. It was an adult joke in response to how hard your dad is on himself. A bit of adult sarcasm. I am 30 yrs older than your Dad. Been there, done that. In 30 yrs he might see his comments differently and be “kinder” to himself. He is a super cool dad taking all of you on fantastic adventures all over the world. Who gets to do that, eh? You will remember this for a lifetime.

  2. There’s been a stark shift in Silicon Valley high tech companies in the past 5 years or so; people have moved away from talking about effective criticism and talking about effect coaching. Where coaching is meant encompass the act of criticism but also teaching and mentoring skills. It’s been interesting to take part in. The Managers Path and Catalytic Coaching are two of the tomes that get passed around a lot and kind of spurred the revolution a bit. Neither offer directly-applicable advice for parenting (you can’t fire your kid and often they lack the language to clearly articulate what they need from you when it comes to coaching), but both have certainly changed the ways I interact with my kids. Neither is a particularly long or challenging read.

    1. That’s super interesting, Ian, and well articulated. Thanks for the book recommendations – I will definitely check them out. Reassuring that I might only be five years behind Silicon Valley 🙂 The other thought I had reading your comment is that more years I accumulate the more I realize advances in one field often have wonderful applications in others. I am more than happy to steal the good ideas from Silicon Valley and use them with my kids!

  3. Thank you for putting this post. The timing feels almost uncanny; this topic has been fresh in my mind for the past few days. Really like the anti-criticism goals.

    I was mulling over point number 2 in the list. It occurred to me that I feel the same way about adults in my life sometimes (no kids right now; not at that stage yet). But with some adults/peers/friends…spouse…, I’ve been critical, pushing, and unintentionally judging. My initial intent was to ask questions that I find interesting, but comes out as unaccepting of this person as they currently are. And it hurts to realize that, in the attempt to share my excitement about change and growth, I have likely been causing these people I care about pain.

    Anyways, all this to say, I’m going to try to adopt your anti-criticism goals for kids and extend them to the adults in my life as well 🙂

    1. I love this comment, Dr. FIREfly, and really appreciate your candor. You could be describing me in some of my interactions with adults in my life too!

      I have a theory that many of the more accomplished people in society may have found success because of a drive that is fueled by self-criticism. When that is the theme of our internal monologue, it can easily leak into our interactions with others. It’s just the way we see things.

      The fortunate irony is that we can be critical of ourselves being too critical 🙂 . . . and maybe we can grow out of that mindset into something better.

  4. Why don’t you have them self critique instead of you doing it? It could get them to be more thoughtful and provoke a more interesting discussion. I grew up with a lot of negative criticism and it caused me to want to get as far away as possible after I was old enough. Turns out my folks were trying to achieve their goals that they failed in by trying to critique me into that behavior which backfired and sent me away. Try not to alienate, give them the opportunity to be self assessing.

    1. Now, that’s good constructive criticism – thanks, Luisa!

      In fact, it validates something that I’ve been trying with the kids. We will get together; plan a little project, like a story; write the stories; then gather again to read them. After each story, we evaluate ourselves before anyone else gets a chance to say anything. Then we praise the good things before raising any areas that might use some tweaking. This is the method that we used throughout McMaster medical school and it had really positive effects on our skills in both giving and receiving feedback (although maybe not enough for me!).

      Sometimes it feels like I am doing them a disservice by not talking (even kindly) about some of the “shortcomings” that seem so obvious to me, but I am coming around to the fact that this is the wrong way to think about it. Thanks so much for your comment and suggestion.

  5. Great post.

    Let me know when when you execute a day of parenting without some second guessing. I struggle with this. Without jumping into our personal character flaws, I think awareness of how we got here as parents helps (at least I think it does for me).

    I also have a blessing in my wife. She reads about anything, and enough for both of us. She is very patient, and is just different in all the right and balanced ways from me. I see different (read mostly better) responses in our children that surprise me, based entirely on her approach to the particular issue of the moment. She is a great teacher for me on how to re-package those times when my critiques are not needed – in to opportunities of investment in the kids.

    I struggle every day with facilitating different approaches/manners/emotional responses/whatever in our kids. I find it a particular challenge with the age spread in our 3 kids (16-7-5) and adapting to both their age and personality. Some days, as we get ready for bed, my wife and I debrief (laugh, question, vent, debate, inform) about everything, anywhere from 30 seconds to an hour.

    I don’t know why I’m posting this because clearly as I unpack my thoughts on this I have only my shared sentiments to offer. It’s a daily struggle (not to be dramatic – but in a daily parenting grind sort of way). I only find now that I am generally slower to be critical, I recognize it sooner and when I’m feeling compelled – I’m quicker to say sorry to my kids. Thankfully kids are resilient and quick to forgive and accept (as yours demonstrated in their replies).

    Thanks for this post.

    1. Sorry for the delay – big travel day. But I’m glad you commented, Ryan! I can certainly relate to the gratitude of having a partner who can compensate for our relative weaknesses when it comes to parenting! Linds is a natural, and if my efforts are worth anything, it’s because I’ve followed her lead.

      Credit also goes to the kids: they have exhibited an impressive ability to be kind, resilient, and industrious in spite of my shortcomings.

      I’d rather be lucky than good. But I’ll keep trying to be good.

  6. My natural tendency is also to point out what could be “better”. This blog was a reminder that my children and my business team don’t always want or need to hear my “advice ” which comes across as criticism. Thank you for the reminder. I know I won’t totally change but can strive to provide more positive feedback than negative. Thank you!
    BTW…your family is an inspiration!

    1. Thanks for your openness, Jennie. Nice to know I’m not alone. As you say, we might have good intentions, but the reception is often not what we’d intended. I think it might be because the gift of advice is often wrapped in rationality, whereas it is received with emotion. It’s like the giver and receiver are interacting with different parts of their brains.

  7. “Any short term gain we get through criticism of our kids – often resentful submission – builds long-term resistance, withdrawal, and insecurity.” Such a sobering blog post for a parent! I applaud the introspection, though – not many of us take the time or responsibility to evaluate and attempt change. Your vulnerability is appreciated, though. And I’m not really sure about Mel’s comment – it would be helpful if they replied, but maybe they just skimmed the post? Maybe? *scratching head*

    1. I really appreciate how Matt and Lindsay involve the kids in their decisions and value their opinions. Soooo different than when I was growing up; I’m probably closer in age to M&L’s parents then M&L. I can painfully recalled being treated like my ideas didn’t count nor should they be taken into consideration. Then all of sudden my opinions mattered when I turned 40 or 50 but i missed the transition. Kids see and understand a lot that we think they don’t see or think about. They will be much more comfortable having and giving them and confident if they are looked at credibly from the start. It took me years to get over the lack of that.

    2. It IS sobering, isn’t it? – but I think we only have to look as far as our own reactions to criticism to know that it’s true. Being so much less busy on this trip has been instrumental in clarifying some things that were previously a blur because I was always moving too fast. And once they’re clear, there’s no going back; might as well fess-up to my quirks and follies and attempt to be less bad in the future. It’s actually easier than insisting I was right against all evidence to the contrary.

  8. I think you and Lindsay are wonderful parents and every blog post you write further enforces that impression. Parents put a lot of pressure on themselves to do the right thing. Your sons are all excellent young men who demonstrate a great deal of kindness and cooperation in the blog. You should be so proud of yourself to have raised such fine young men!

    1. That’s always nice to hear, precisely because we do put so much pressure on ourselves. I think most parents do because we know intuitively that our children are our most important responsibility. At the same time, we would probably do well not to take ourselves so seriously! Thanks for the comment, RocDoc.

  9. Let me confess that while the travel pics and adventure tales are catnip, the self-reflection along the journey is what keeps me returning – that’s my bag, baby! The international backgrounds are spectacular, but the human trailblazing is the most resonant and instructive.

    Removing armor is a skill, and to do so publicly as you’ve done here is a brave skill. Thanks for modeling such honest vulnerability.

    To take a potential (if, to take the commentator at his word, unintended) negative experience and hold it up to your kids to serve as a basis for discussing why one should still remove armor when others throw stones is more impressive still.

    I’ll echo Ryan’s feedback that the most valuable skill I bring to the table as an impatient, flawed and critical father is the ability to quickly pivot to I’m sorry.

    It’s seldom graceful and it’s mostly embarrassing, but the power of that knock at the child’s door followed by an apology from an adult hopefully opens the door to forgiveness and the possibility of better parenting.

    Keep borrowing from the playbooks that serve you, whether out of Silicon Valley or elsewhere. You are fine parents, your kids see it, and we’d be lucky to have kids whose loyalty mirrors that seen in your sons’ comments above.

    Fondly,

    CD

    1. Great comment, Crispy Doc. I’m curious: is your “ability to quickly pivot to I’m sorry” something you learned as a young man or later in life? For me, admitting weakness or error is a skill that I definitely lacked in the first few decades of my life; it is one of the many wonderful virtues that Lindsay possesses and I have learned from her example. I’m still not so quick to do it, and it makes me deeply uncomfortable, but for the boys to know that vulnerability is not just okay, that it actually enriches relationships and promotes cooperation and progress, is well worth my discomfort.

      Thanks for the comment and the reassurance that another dad whose opinion I value struggles with some of the same issues.

  10. Fabulous post, Matt, and subsequently, Linds. What parents don’t want to give fulfilling and thoughtful criticism to their kids to help them learn? As Crispy Doc wrote, your deep thinking into family psychology is what keeps one coming back to your excellent blog.

    We have been following your blog for months and love hearing and seeing pictures of your travels. In fact, we are an American family of 6 (two physician parents and 4 kids ages 12, 10, 8, and 6) whom you have inspired to embark on a journey of our own for a year! While our travel plans differ somewhat, our goals are quite similar in that we want a worldly family experience that will bring us closer together. While your blog may be a great family journal for you to look back upon fondly, know that it is a solid blueprint for others to use and reflect upon and for that we are so grateful. Go Poyners!

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