You don’t want to punish your kids—you just want them to start behaving better. As a clinical psychologist and mother of four, I’d like to share the magic of “soft criticism.”

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We love our children, so it seems obvious that they should love themselves. Confidence and feeling comfortable in your own skin are life goals for everyone. But if encouraging these qualities is your priority as a parent, you might avoid dealing with your child’s difficult behavior because you don’t want to damage his self-esteem. As I write in my book Kid Confidence, children need to learn from their mistakes—and you can still hold them accountable without making them feel like bad kids.

One of our most important jobs is to teach our children how to be in relationships. They need to understand the ways their actions affect other people, and which behaviors others will and won’t tolerate. Feeling guilty if they’ve done something wrong is a part of moral development. It helps them develop the internal barometer that tells them, “Ooh, I messed up,” so they’ll want to make amends. Healthy guilt is not the same as feeling ashamed or worthless.

Here are answers to questions I often hear from parents and ways to empower kids to solve their own problems.

young child with mother kissing head
Credit: Priscilla Gragg

Whenever my child misbehaves, she gets very upset if I point it out. Why?

Some kids are extra sensitive to criticism or prone to low self-esteem. Although the standard advice is to criticize a child’s behavior rather than the child, most kids can’t hear the difference. Adults can rationalize—“I did one bad thing, but overall, I’m a pretty good person.” Kids are black-and-white thinkers. When they’re confronted with having done something bad, they feel totally bad.

How can I handle a situation gently—but without letting my kid off the hook?

The best approach is a three-step strategy that I call “soft criticism.” In fact, it works well with partners and coworkers too.

Step One: Offer an excuse for his behavior. Start by saying, “I know you didn’t mean to” or “You probably didn’t realize” or “I get that you were trying to.” This tells him that you know he’s a good kid and has good intentions even when he messes up.

Step Two: Tell her what she did wrong and how it affected others. Say, “When you hit your brother, his arm hurt a lot.” It may be tempting to add, “You always treat him that way” or “You don’t care enough about other people’s feelings,” but you won’t make your point clearer by convincing her of her badness.

Step Three: Move forward. Kids can’t undo what they’ve already done, and we don’t want to leave them stuck feeling badly about themselves. Ask your child questions to help him come up with a plan for making things right, such as, “What can you do to help your brother feel better?” Depending on the situation, you can suggest possible ways to make amends. This could involve apologizing, comforting, sharing, cleaning up, or doing a chore, such as sorting the recycling. In the broadest sense, if your kid did something to hurt the family, then he can do something to help the family. And when he does something kind or helpful to make amends, express genuine appreciation.

My kid definitely needs help coming up with make-it-better solutions. How can I nudge her?

If there’s a situation that’s frequently difficult for her, it’s helpful to have a conversation in which you describe the problem by saying, “On the one hand ... but on the other hand ...” and then encourage her to come up with possible solutions. As soon as you present the situation in terms of two perspectives, you can almost see your child’s brain growing before your eyes. She is expanding beyond just “I want” to accommodate another point of view too.

Whenever you problem-solve with kids, their first suggestion is usually totally unreasonable (“My sister should just move out!”) and your job is to say, “That’s one option, but it wouldn’t take care of the other part of the problem. What else could we do?”

Your child can learn to come up with ideas and refine them if you’re patient and guide her to think things through. Then, if her solution is a success, you can say, “Wow, your solution really worked.” It’s empowering to kids to know that they solved a problem.

If my child does seem to have low self-esteem, should I be worried?

As parents, hearing our kids make negative comments about themselves is just agony. It makes us want to leap in immediately and show them how special they are. Although it seems logical that kids who feel good about themselves will be happier, that’s not what research shows. Studies have found that higher self-esteem is not associated with academic success, better relationships, or even happiness—and over-the-top praise can backfire. The harder you try to prove to your child he’s wonderful, the more he may argue that he’s terrible or worry he’ll never be able to live up to your praise. In one large study, for example, a group of children were given a course designed to improve self-esteem, while another group of kids received direct instruction in academic subjects. Guess who came out with more confidence? The kids who actually developed real skills in math and reading. Our focus shouldn’t be to convince our kids they’re terrific but to help them develop strong friendships and genuine competence.

That said, we don’t want children to have low self-esteem because they’ll be miserable and at higher risk of depression. And it can also become a self-fulfilling prophesy: A kid may be afraid to try something new because she assumes that she’ll be bad at it or will avoid social situations because she thinks she won’t fit in with the other kids. Or she’ll go to the opposite extreme and be so perfectionistic that nothing is ever good enough.

The solution isn’t to teach a child to feel better about herself. It’s to help her break free of harsh self-focus. There’s a lot of pressure on people today to care about their image and how they’re coming across. Real self-esteem isn’t about loving ourselves; it’s about letting go of the question, “Am I good enough?” Think about when you’re with a close friend. You’re not wondering, “Does she like me?” We want to help kids connect to something bigger than themselves, whether it’s a friendship or a chance to learn about a subject that matters to them.

Will being successful boost a kid’s confidence?

Unfortunately, some kids are quick to discount their victories. They’ll pick apart their performance and insist it wasn’t that good. One study found that people with low self-esteem feel more anxious after a victory than they do after a defeat. They worry they won’t be able to do it again or that people will expect more of them.

One way you can help your child feel more competent is by being what I call a “biased biographer.” Tell him empowering stories about times when he struggled but ultimately triumphed. You could say, “I remember when you were first learning to ride your bike and you fell and fell, and now look at you, zipping around the neighborhood!” Focus on the concrete thing: “Before you couldn’t do this, but now you can.”

What should I do when my kid won’t do what I ask—even when I know she’s capable of it?

First of all, make sure you have realistic expectations. It’s so easy to think that she ought to be able to behave a certain way, but you have to deal with the child in front of you. If you always ask her to go upstairs and get ready for bed, and every night, 30 minutes later, she has only taken off one sock, you have to try a different approach. It truly doesn’t matter if most kids her age can get ready for bed alone or even if her younger sister can. I consider realistic expectations to be what our kids can do most of the time or just a bit beyond that.

When I give talks to groups of parents, I sometimes say to an audience member, “Come up here and do a back handspring and I will give you $1,000.” Of course, he doesn’t do it. Then I turn to the audience and say, “Look how stubborn he is! Maybe I need to be firmer with him and say, ‘Get up here, young man, and do a back handspring or you owe me $1,000.’ ” He still doesn’t do it. So then I say, “Nothing works for him! I’ve tried rewards, I’ve tried punishments ...” The moral of the story is rewards and punishments are irrelevant if your child is not able to do what you’re asking her to do.

How can I motivate my kid to behave well?

Make sure he knows that it’s possible to please you. Recognize his effort and progress. Developing amnesia for his past sins is also one of the most generous things you can do as a parent. Children are changing so rapidly that whatever your child did last month was practically done by an entirely different person, so there’s no reason to bring it up again.

You can also talk about how he is growing or becoming: “You and your brother did a good job of working out how to share the back seat. You are becoming better at negotiating and compromising” or “You helped show the new kid at school how to use the computer. You are becoming the kind of person who can see a need and step in to help.”

The reason why the language of becoming is so powerful is that it says to your kid, “Never mind if you’ve messed up in the past, and never mind if you mess up tomorrow. Right here, right now, I see evidence for hope.” What a beautiful gift to give to a child.

Check out more great advice in Parents advisor Dr. Kennedy-Moore’s new book, Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem

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