The Most Common Mistake Parents Make
No parent is perfect. Parents need to parent, which means shaping kids’ behaviour as well as providing love, care and belonging. Parenting can test you in every way, but pause before you criticise a kid. The consequences of criticism can take a long time to heal.
“If you’re going to call yourself an author, you have to get your facts right”.
“You could have given me the courtesy of one phone call to check the facts.” said my father
“In your book Deb, you got the colour of the car wrong, and you didn’t talk about all the times we played together”.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely agree in principle. Devoid of context, his statement sounds reasonable. But in the context of our lives, his and mine: I felt his criticism hard in my gut.
“The courtesy of one phone call?”
I monotoned back at him in shock but I couldn’t keep the emphasis off the ‘one phone call’ part no matter how expressionless and calm I tried to hold my voice.
Here we go, it started falling from my mouth like little rocks down a steep slope
“You didn’t give me or my mother the courtesy of one phone call for almost 20 years. You didn’t call me for my entire childhood? But I owed you the courtesy of a phone call to confirm the details of a car colour and how much fun you think we had when I was a baby, before you disappeared? “
“Look Deb, it’s just that if you’re going to call yourself an author….”
Criticism from a parent remains difficult, no matter how old we are. It’s tricky to let go of caring about their opinion of us even when we’re grown up. It’s difficult to get over feeling unloved as a kid, even when you’re old enough to be a parent or grandparent yourself.
You absolutely move on, hopefully you forgive, and set your soul free of the past, but you usually don’t forget.
And that’s a gift.
This conversation I had with my father, who was absent throughout my childhood is an example of how childhood pain isn’t forgotten despite a lot of therapy and our best efforts at moving on and forgiving the past.
Rest assured, none of this dominates my day-to-day emotional world as it once did, but it can erupt like a dormant volcano, rumbling into painful, sudden awareness given enough pressure. That’s just the nature of it. Pain isn’t easily forgotten.
Something I’ve come to know for certain, is that an important part of becoming our fullest, most emotionally free, adult selves, is to define ourselves no longer by the opinions, and most of all the criticism, of parents or other key figures in our development.
Sounds easy, you’re a grown up. But if you reflect on the harshest words or attitudes you tend to hit yourself with to this day, in your own head, chances are you’ll find they had their genesis long ago, and when you’re vulnerable, some of those beliefs can still give you a run for your money.
The gift of remembering old hurts is that we can be mindful of our vulnerabilities, care for ourselves when they rise up, and know how to be less destructive than those who came before.
It’s part of our job as parents to guide, reflect, teach what we know, get help with what we don’t know. However, be clear on this. Criticism is not of value in raising children. Criticism is destructive by its nature.
Criticism = the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes.
A kid needs at least one safe emotional haven in their life where they feel more than approved of for just existing. The world doesn’t offer that freely to everyone. The best chance we have of always feeling good enough as a young person is in the eyes of our parents. If you don’t feel approved of and good enough there — there may not be anywhere on this earth where you can. The world is going to dish out plenty of reality checks and criticism to everyone across our lives, so it’s vital we have a soft place to fall where we’re not given a hard time about who we are.
When I say No to criticism, there’s a tendency to reflexively pull out the ‘constructive’ word. Trouble is, the concepts constructive and criticism are oxymorons. Criticism is essentially ‘de-structive’. It does not build or add to a child. It aims to detract, to deconstruct, or to remove a behaviour or a characteristic that is disapproved of, not to construct anything. That would be a different, healthier conversation.
Don’t despair if criticism is a mistake you’ve made. Just let any culture of criticism become redundant.
Criticism may have very little long-term impact if it’s only happened on a few occasions. However, if you criticise a child repeatedly over time, even if you think it’s for their ’own good’, chances are, those will be the words or attitudes they’ll still be trying to get over to feel OK about themselves, decades later. As a psychologist I can tell you, in many cases, parental criticisms are what adults repeat to me 30 years later, as they work on their self-esteem and limiting self-beliefs.
So how do you help kids to do better without contributing to setting up an overly-critical voice in their heads?
1. Walk the talk.
Live as you would have them live. Show kids the respect you would like from them in every interaction you have with them. Don’t issue orders, yell, criticise or be your most impatient self with them.
Be interested. Give them your full attention as often as you can. Love is a special quality of attention by its very nature. No full attention = not feeling fully worthy of your energy.
3. Be non-judgmental.
Offer your wisdom, preferences and perspectives without insisting kids hold the same views. Always own your own mistakes to normalise theirs, rather than creating distance and disconnection through passing judgment.
4. Model compassion.
Kids who freely receive ongoing deep positive attention, who feel respected as people, and who are not coming under regular criticism, tend to be happier. But all kids need direction, guidance and sometimes some course correction.
You can be firm and say ‘no’ when you need to without criticising a child’s character or speaking in ways that you yourself would find disrespectful.
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