Creative Child

How to Discipline Your Child Without Criticism

by Deborah Song

Discipline and criticism often happen together but their effects couldn’t be more different. Discipline is necessary in steering a child in the right direction, criticism discourages, distracts and often steers kids in the opposite intended direction.

Anyone who’s ever been criticized reacts in two ways: he will either slouch his shoulders and retreat into a defeated corner, or he’ll act out and become defiant. Criticism never leads to lasting change. When it comes to kids who are criticized, they often become so focused on how they’ve disappointed their parents, that they seldom remember the lesson.

But not only is criticism futile, “Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance and arouses resentment,” said Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People.

So why do we criticize our kids? Many times it happens despite our best efforts. Differentiating criticism from discipline isn’t always easy. We discipline because our kids have done something wrong after all. Other times, though, it’s because we don’t have a better alternative. When our kids keep making the same mistake over and over, we become desperate for change and end up meeting force with more force. But there’s a more effective way to inspire change than through criticism. Here’s how.


1. Seek to understand first. A much more effective way to inspire change is to try to understand your child before you condemn him. Once a child feels validated and heard, he will feel more inclined to listen because he won’t be on the defensive anymore.

My strong-willed 5-year-old used to go through phases of defiance. She would be cooperative and polite one minute, then enter a period of willful stubbornness and lashing out. So I used to feel the need to become more vocal in my corrections.

But when I had a chance to sit down with her, it became apparent that for as strong and independent as she was, my seemingly iron-clad daughter was very vulnerable to feelings of disappointment when it came to mom and dad. The more she got scolded, the more she became discouraged. And the less confident she became in her abilities to behave well. It was then when I sought out to understand her motive first, and began pursuing more positive and encouraging ways to motivate her. Which leads me to my next point.

2. Don’t forget about positive consequences. Criticisms take on different forms than just audible words. It can be the impression we leave on our kids that nothing they do is good enough. If all we’re focused on is their flaws, if the only form of feedback they receive comes in the form of negative consequences, we are criticizing them much louder than we realize.

B.F. Skinner, a world-famous psychologist, proved through his experiments that an animal rewarded for good behavior will learn much more rapidly and retain what it learns far more effectively than an animal punished for bad behavior. How much more so a human child with feelings and needs, which above all, include the need to find approval from mom and dad?

In our busyness it’s easy to forget to reward good behavior. But reinforcing positive behavior is critical for lasting change. In order to remain motivated, kids need to understand that in life there are consequences both good and bad.

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