Your Child’s Learning Curve on Criticism

Children learn through naturally occurring rewards and losses, natural consequences. Behaviors that bring a natural reward tend to increase while behaviors that result in a loss decrease. In other words, children learn from experience. Parents, however, can interfere with this learning in a subtle way, often without even knowing it. Fortunately, you can avoid interfering with your child’s ability to learn from experience by limiting this one behavior—criticism.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology suggests that parental criticism interferes with a child’s ability to learn through the natural rewards and losses they experience every day. To say in more directly, criticizing your child will hinder their ability to learn from natural consequences.

But not all “criticism” is the same. For instance, “constructive criticism” instructs. A child who asks a parent to check their essay or offer advice on improving their tennis swing actually invites “constructive criticism” because they know it will help them grow. When given well, “constructive criticism” is given in kindness and is couched in concern for and interest in your child. “Constructive criticism” will not interfere with your children’s ability to learn. Instead, it will enhance your children’s ability to learn.

In a similar manner, “corrective criticism” can help your children learn and grow by addressing misbehavior. At its best, “corrective criticism” addresses the behavior, not the child. As a result, it does not make a judgment about the child or their character. “Corrective criticism” also places the behavior to change within the larger, more positive perspective of your child by acknowledging that the misbehavior does not define your child. It implies or even explicitly states that the misbehavior is not a reflection of their true self and their true values.

The damaging criticism referred to in this research is “corrosive criticism.” “Corrosive criticism” is often given in anger. It often demeans the child. It may involve sarcasm, humiliation, or shaming. “Corrosive criticism” hurts. Our children may incorporate the words of such criticism into their belief system and begin to feel inferior and inadequate. “Corrosive criticism” fills our children’s minds with self-contempt and guilt. It weighs on their mind and makes them doubt themselves and their interpretation of the world around them. It interferes with their ability to learn from natural consequences. (The three types of criticism taken from The Use and Abuse of Parental Criticism with Adolescents | Psychology Today.)

If you want your children to learn to the best of their ability from the natural consequences of daily living, avoid “corrosive criticism.” Do not use sarcasm, put-downs, or shaming to discipline or punish. Avoid all name-calling. Instead, learn to discipline in love with the goal of encouraging, instructing, and lifting your children up. As you do, they will learn from your healthy discipline and from the natural consequences of daily life. That’s a “double whammy” of growing maturity.

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