Critical Acclaim: Help Your Child Learn from Constructive Criticism

When your child is corrected for doing something wrong, help her learn from her mistakes.

Scenarios to Help Your Child Learn Constructive Criticism

upset child

Alexandra Grablewski

My friend's 6-year-old daughter, Caitlyn, was at her BFF's house, and she began to whine about the board game they were playing. The other girl's mom jumped in and told her, "That's not how we talk to each other in this family." Caitlyn immediately shut down and said that she wanted to go home.

No one likes to be criticized, but negative feedback can be particularly difficult for 5- and 6-year-olds. Even if the criticism seems constructive, your child may lash out, blame someone else, or withdraw, depending on the situation. However, you can help her understand its true purpose: to learn about her strengths and weaknesses and work to change her shortcomings because this will help her become a successful adult, says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids. These scenarios will give you pointers to steer her in the right direction.

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Scenario: Your Child Is Criticized by a Teacher

A teacher wrote your daughter's name on the board for talking when she wasn't called on. Your daughter tells you that she hates her teacher.

Handle It Right Your first instinct may be to punish or lecture her, but her heated response is your cue she's already upset. A better approach: Empathize with her feelings of embarrassment, suggests Rebecca Cortes, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at the University of Washington, in Seattle. Resist the temptation to have a lengthy discussion. Keep it simple with something like, "I can see you're upset; that's how people feel when they're embarrassed. Sometimes when people feel that way, they also feel frustrated and angry. It's okay to have those emotions, and while you can always talk to me about them, it's not okay to express those negative feelings in the classroom."

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Scenario: Your Child Is Criticized by a Friend's Mother

A friend's mother told your son on a playdate not to call a toy "stupid." You heard him reply, "Why not? My mom lets me use that word."

Handle It Right Yes, you've let him say the word on occasion, as long as he's not describing a person. But a child who is ashamed about being reprimanded often tries to deal with the feeling by arguing or being belligerent. This is a good time to talk to him about how there are different rules in different places and the importance of respecting them. Give him the words to explain next time why he acted the way he did ("Sorry, I didn't know about the rule"), and then teach him the phrase: "Do you mind if I ask why?" If he is curious (why shouldn't he call a toy stupid, for example?), it's a polite way for him to question something.

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Scenario: Your Child Is Criticized by a Coach

The T-ball coach asks your child to stop daydreaming during practice, and she bursts into tears.

Handle It Right Once she's calm, help her see that the coach was looking out for her because she could get hit in the head by the ball or miss an important instruction. Ask her why she burst into tears. If she was upset about what the other kids would think, let her know that her reaction probably got a lot more attention than the coach's initial comments. Then teach her an appropriate response, like "Got it. Thanks." Says Dr. Berman: "Giving your child a response like that to use next time helps her take power back."

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Scenario: Your Child Is Criticized by a Classmate

A classmate told your son that his picture is messy. He responded, "Well, your picture is ugly!"

Handle It Right First, you'll need to help your child make sense of his emotions. Ask him directly, "How did that comment make you feel?" Let him know that you understand why he may have felt embarrassed -- and even hurt. "You want to encourage him to accept, rather than dismiss, his feelings," explains Dr. Cortes. Talk to him about how words can hurt people, and ask him how he thinks his own rude retort made the other boy feel. Explain that if he reacts angrily to a hurtful comment, he can end up doing to others precisely what he didn't like having done to him -- and point out that now two people will be left feeling hurt and upset. Give him some options on how to respond in the future if this happens. For instance, he can ask the boy why he thinks the picture is messy, or he could tell the boy that the comment hurt his feelings. You might also suggest he just say, "Well, that's your opinion."

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Scenario: Your Child Is Criticized by a Family Member

Your sister tells your daughter that she's not playing hopscotch the right way. Your daughter won't let her explain and later tells you she thinks her aunt doesn't like her.

Handle It Right Her reaction may seem extreme to you. But if you say, "Honey, that's ridiculous. Of course she likes you," you may make her feel worse. Reassure her that her aunt loves her and that she only wants to teach her how to play the game according to the rules. "The trick is to get your child to learn how to handle criticism gracefully and learn from it," says Parents advisor Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. Use this opportunity to explain to her that criticism, although not always easy to take, is a fact of life. Help her practice how to respond if she's in a similar situation again. For instance, tell her it's fine to simply say, "Thank you" or "Okay, I'll try," and leave it at that.

Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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