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How to Criticize (but Not Destroy) a Child

It’s essential for a parent to offer feedback with clarity and love as long as they’re not mean about it.

The idea of constructive criticism has developed a bad rap because too many assholes have used it to describe negative feedback. But, in its purest form, constructive criticism is actually very helpful, especially for children, who have no earthly idea what they’re doing most of the time. Criticism can be given with love and, when it is, it tends to help.

“I don’t like the word ‘criticism’ because it has that negative connotation,” says child psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen, doing a bit of a rhetorical pump-fake. “But feedback is absolutely essential to raising healthy kids.”

Is there any difference between feedback and criticism? Nope. But people are more comfortable with the idea of feedback so Amen lets them roll with it. Most parents are — and this is totally understandable given the impulse to correct children — nervous about being overly critical. Feedback sounds mellower and being mellow is kind of the point. It’s good to come in to help. It’s not great if you come in hot.

father and son sitting on staircase

“The best parents have two traits,” Amen says. “They’re firm. When they say something they mean it and back it up. And they’re kind. They do it in a way that builds the relationship.”

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Whatever you call it, there is a right way and a wrong way to provide constructive parental feedback, née criticism. Opening communication in anger and harshness is a no-no. So is making it about the kid (“You’re bad”) rather than the behavior (“What you did was inappropriate”). Basically, parents should be less about blame than about helping a kid understand the best way to reach their goal. Because, frankly, it’s better for the parent when the kid is achieving their goal, like getting another cookie, through appropriate means.

The technique itself is not so hard. Amen notes that good managers have been doing this in offices since forever ago. Almost every worker has seen this in practice; we have all eaten “the sandwich.” It starts with telling a kid the thing a parent appreciates about them. Then the parent gives clear feedback about how the kid can change. The parent then asks the kid what the kid heard (it probably won’t be what the parent said), corrects them as needed, and ends with a reminder about how much they care for their precious angel cherub. This is how good managers work and how good parents work. Human psychology isn’t the hardest thing in the world to hack.

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father and son talking in park

While it sounds easy enough, threading the feedback needle can still be tough for some parents (and, let’s be real, bosses). But a parent afraid of getting it wrong is really almost as damaging as a parent who never thinks about the fact that they’re being too harsh and not at all constructive. Luckily, getting feedback right requires laying a foundation that should be pretty standard for most parents to begin with. That foundation is love. And as long as the kid feels that love, then they’ll probably be willing to hear stuff about themselves that isn’t so pleasant.

“Have you protected the bond with them first?” Amen asks. “Because I know if you love me I can hear hard things about myself. But if I don’t know that you love me, if you don’t listen to me and spend time with me, then I don’t really care what you say.”

Listening and spending time. Those are the keys to the foundation of love. And if that foundation is there, then a parent should absolutely feel confident giving their kid feedback about their behavior.

“Short-term pain, or long-term pain,” explains Amen. “If you don’t give them feedback because you’re anxious about their negative reaction and you worry about hurting their feelings, what you’re really doing is setting it up so that they’re going to continue troubled behavior for a long time.”