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.
- We hate to be devalued; and criticism devalues
- 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:
- 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.
- Remember they are kids. They need time to progress at their own pace; I shouldn’t judge them by adult standards.
- Ask them if they want feedback. Constructive criticism only works if it is wanted.
- Choose cooperation over criticism. Ask how we can work together to make the next time even better.
- 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.
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