Excess praise is harmful to children, but so is being overly critical. Are you being too critical of your kids?
“What’s the matter with you?”
Last week we were talking about the problem with praise, an issue that psychologist Madeline Levine, Ph.D., explores in her book, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.
But, Levine points out in her book, if overpraising our children is harmful (because it focuses on achievement instead of effort, makes children reluctant to try new things, and is often used by parents to manipulate their kids into doing what they want them to do), being overly critical of children is even worse.
I know that it is bad to be overly critical of your kids.
Probably every parent knows it.
But, unfortunately, the knowledge that being overly critical of our kids might harm our children’s self-esteem, does not always keep us from saying things that harm our children’s self-esteem. If you listen to four-year-olds playing together, you can get some insight into just how critical and hurtful parents’ words can be.
Some real-life examples of things I’ve heard parents say to their children (or about their children) that make me sad:
“If you keep eating like that, you’ll have to go to fat girls’ camp.”
“Why can’t [my daughter] straighten her legs? She looks like an asshole.”
“You’re a quitter. Why can’t you ever stick with anything?”
Some real-life examples of things I’ve said to my own children that I really wish I hadn’t:
“Why don’t you just grow up?”
“Why can’t you act your age?”
“Are you doing that on purpose to upset me? Because it’s working and now I’m upset.”
“Sometimes I hate you too.”
(Yes, I know. It’s awful. I really did say this. To my son. In the midst of a very bad argument where we were both yelling at each other. And I feel totally ashamed that I said it. And wish I hadn’t. And if you hate me for it and never want to read another word I write, I won’t blame you.)
When we are overly critical of our children we are commenting on the value of the child herself. We’re telling her that she is worthless, unworthy of love, unworthy of respect.
Ironically, when we badger a child about something we don’t like in the hopes it will save her from a future problem (“You want to go to fat girls’ camp?” was said by a mom who herself had a weight problem and did not want her daughter to suffer the same fate), we all but insure the child will have a complex about it and will end up with the problem we want to save her from (that daughter has spent her adult life unhappy about being overweight).
Being overly critical of our kids is about being overly critical of ourselves
Trying to turn your child into a different person to satisfy your own dreams does not work, makes your children feel bad about themselves, and can cause lasting psychological harm. Levine uses the example of a physician dad who does not want to acknowledge that his teen is average-bright, not superior, and who says, “Why in the world would you take physiology instead of AP chemistry? You’re smarter than that.” Ouch.
“Whenever we attack our child’s developing self,” Levine writes in bold in her book, “we feed feelings of self-hatred, perhaps the most dangerous feelings kids can have.”
This is not to say that we can’t express disappointment or disapproval to our children when we don’t like their behavior. It’s our job as parents to guide our children, give them clear expectations, and help them grow into competent, responsible adults. But we need to correct them in a way that criticizes the behavior, not the child.
Instead of saying, “What’s wrong with you?” to my 8-year-old son who is again antagonizing his 2-year-old sister, I could say, “I don’t like it when you tease Leone.” Then I could take his sister into another room, away from him, and play with her, to show him that bad behavior will not get him attention.
(Am I the only one with kids like this? Two of my four seem to seek out negative attention. The other two can’t bear a harsh word and rarely, if ever, misbehave. As I told one of them the other day, if that one were my only child, I would fancy myself the best parent in the world.)
Instead of saying, “Why don’t you just grow up?” to my 12-year-old daughter, I could say, “It really annoys me when I have to remind you 15 times to do your chores. Do them the first time I ask you, please. If you can’t manage that, you lose the privilege of checking your email for the day.”
Instead of saying, “Are you doing that on purpose to upset me?” I could go into the garage and hit the heavy bag, take a walk around the block, or do some jumping jacks until I have blown off enough steam to deal with my child in a calmer and more rational manner.
Parenting skills in theory are easy, it’s the practice that’s hard
I am very good with all this parenting theory, aren’t I? But it’s so hard to put it into practice. These fights usually come about at moments of stress. I have low blood sugar, a problem with work, or a frustration with James. Maybe I’m angry at myself for not being as productive as I hoped, or for misplacing a document I need, or for not getting lunches made quickly enough. In those moments, it’s hard not to lash out, even though I know it’s wrong.
I think there’s another reason some parents tend to overly criticize their children: The self-hate that Levine says is so dangerous for young people is often present in large amounts in us parents and tends to get passed on from generation to generation.
I have a tendency to ticker tape negative thoughts and call myself an idiot.
I spill something in the kitchen and instead of looking at the mess and thinking, “An opportunity to clean the floor!” I look at the mess and think, “Why am I so stupid and clumsy? I always drop stuff when I’m tired. I’ll never have a clean house. I suck.”
Cheri Huber, a Zen practitioner whose wisdom I really appreciate, suggests breathing through those moments. Be aware of the unkind voices inside your head, notice them, and smile at them. Remember those negative voices are not you, they are what Huber calls your “psychosocial conditioning.” Breath. And then take a rag and wipe up the spill. I love this advice. But it’s so much easier said than done.
Do you think you are overly critical of your children? Is there something about your parenting you would like to change? Do you have suggestions for how to be kinder to yourself? Less critical of your kids?
Published: March 29, 2012
Updated: January 13, 2020