Eliminate Criticism and Minimize Mistakes
This is the title of a chapter in Rudolph Dreikurs’ classic parenting book Children: The Challenge. It can be a tough concept for a parent to really grasp, though, because our first instinct as humans seems to be to step in and correct, instead of letting things run their course. It gets easier the more we practice it, as with everything else, but when we start out trying to eliminate criticism, it takes a focused effort to do so.
Kids receive a lot of message based on our judgments and what we consider to be important. To use an example from Dreikurs’ book, kids aren’t concerned at all that their thank you letter to Grandma is filled with mistakes and is incredibly sloppy. They just enjoy the process of creating something for someone they love. And if we step in and point out all the ways their letter is inadequate, they lose the joy and pride they felt in creating it.
As Dreikurs points out, we cannot build on weaknesses, only on strengths. It may be tempting to focus on the negative because that’s the part that needs more work, but research has shown that by focusing our efforts more on what kids are already doing well, we increase the likelihood that their behaviour will improve. (This is referred to as positive reinforcement.)
Many of us, without realizing it, spend most of our time focusing on what’s not working with our kids. All of our attention and focus goes to what we’d like to see changed, or the negative, and we spend very little time dwelling on what’s already working. But that’s the exact opposite of what we should be doing, if we really want to see our kids make positive improvements in what they’re doing.
A matter-of-fact approach is usually a much better way to handle mistakes. No shame, no blame, simply focusing on where things took a wrong turn and what we (or they) can do to set it back on course. We need to get rid of the notion that in order to help kids do better what have to make them feel worse and instead put our attention on the actions that are already working and on the behaviours we’d like to see more of. We want to empower our kids to feel ok about making mistakes and taking chances, to help them develop the courage to be imperfect but to get back up and try again anyway. Kids want to do well. They want to fit in, get along with others, be seen as helpful and cooperative. And when they don’t, it’s because they’ve been conditioned to believe that nothing they do is right, that they can’t do things without screwing them up, or that it’s just better if they don’t get involved or don’t even try. While kids may come to these conclusions on their own, as parents, we can avoid contributing to their discouragement by eliminating criticism and focusing more on what they do well already.