Of Compliments and Criticism

Table balanceMy kids taught a college class yesterday and I fussed at them afterward about it. Well, I didn’t cause a much of a flap, I just pointed out to them that JP’s showmanship was a bit much and both kids should have turned to face the class a bit more than they did.

I did it the right way, I did what I have been trained to do; I softened the critique with compliments.

Today, my wife told me JP didn’t want me to tag along, “He won’t let me have fun.”

I, sadly, lived down to his expectations.

I find one of the most rewarding aspects of parenting is watching the kids doing things right. It shows me that the kids are paying attention, that the repetition, and work I’ve put into raising the kids matters, and most importantly, it shows they care.

JP and Robin have been meeting with Dr. Kelly’s Introduction to Special Education class for the past few semesters; this semester, he invited Anna to tell her story too. It was a thrill to meet this group of students who hunger for ways to understand the special educational needs of disabled children and their families. We were pleased and excited and none of us wanted the session to end.

Then, I killed the buzz. Stupidly. And all too commonly.

As in some cosmic recipe, compliments and criticism are both necessary for the proper development of children, what I do all too often, is to mix the two and get the proportions wrong. Giving your child a strong compliment can greatly inspire and propel him forward. False praise can make your son feel good about himself today, though it can harm your son long term. Being critical of your child’s actions, although necessary at times, can quickly take the wind out of his sail if you do it poorly.

Here are a few tips that will help you compliment and criticize your children properly.

Compliments and Criticisms Should not be Mixed

Praise should always be a separate conversation from requests or constructive feedback. Looking back, I realize that the compliments I gave my kids for standing in front of sixty-six college students and talking about their difficulties in mainstream education were squashed by my well-intentioned attempt to improve the effectiveness of their presentation.

My kids heard me say, “What you did was good, but not quite good enough.”

We have been taught to soften our criticism with praise. Start the conversation off with a positive, them wrap the criticism with praise so the correction will be easier to take. In reality, we are sending a mixed message. The praise/feedback/praise sandwich leaves our children confused – am I doing a good job or not?

Compliment More than Criticize

I have learned that it’s important to compliment exponentially more than criticize. I once told an employer at the conclusion of a tough fought project the problem with life was the highs were never high enough and never lasted long enough to balance the drudgery of every day tasks. How much more true must it be for a kid who is honestly trying her best, but doesn’t hear often enough from her dad that she is doing great, keep it up?

Use Compliments Correctly

When fathers focus too much on building our kids’ self-esteem and confidence through false praise, we overlook the opportunity to teach them what true achievement means—and by shielding them in cheap compliments, we deprive them of knowing what it’s like to feel the satisfaction of working and achieving goal set high.

As a parent of special needs kids, I often just want to cheer for the children showing up but, that praise can be injurious. Praising the kids for what should be routine behavior can set kids up severe consequences down the road. Kids who have been overly congratulated for doing routine, daily chores like tying their own shoes or eating their broccoli may find future failures to be devastating when praise is not given.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. in Our Gender, Ourselves writes:

Research with children and families has indeed told us that praise has the opposite intended effect. It does not make children work harder, or do better. In fact, kids who are told they’re bright and talented are easily discouraged when something is “too difficult;” those who are not praised in such a manner are more motivated to work harder and take on greater challenges. The unpraised, in turn, show higher levels of confidence, while overpraised are more likely to lie to make their performances sound better. Praise becomes like a drug: once they get it, they need it, want it, are  unable to function without it.

Self-esteem comes as the result of achievement.

Now it is your turn, how well do you balance praise and criticism?

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