Criticize Children or Encourage Them?

By Salina Ho

Translated by Edward Short
September, 2007

I have a friend who is a very good artist.  I asked her when she began to paint; she replied that it was when she was forty years of age.  This was quite a big surprise to me, as she is quite a talented person, so I wondered why she had waited so long.

She said that from the time she was a child she had loved to draw and doodle, but that her mother told her that her drawings were not good, and so she dared not pick up the brush lest she make her mother unhappy.  When she was nineteen she painted her first portrait, and she was rather pleased with it.  When her mother looked at it, however, she laughed at it and said that it didn’t look like anything.  After that she put her brush down and dared not do any more portraits.

Her mother’s ridicule made an indelible impression on her mind, and convinced her that she was no good.  Although she never completely quit painting, she was more than forty years old when she finally put herself under a teacher and studied art.  When she took a portrait painting class, however, the brush shook in her hand.
Eventually she began to teach painting herself and received many compliments, and she overcame the obstacles of so many years.  On one occasion she even asked her mother why she had laughed at her work, but her mother denied it.  Her mother had completely forgotten all about it and she had no idea of how much pain her thoughtless comments had caused her daughter.  She did not know what a stumbling block she had been on her daughter’s pursuit toward artistic success.

Children pay a lot of attention to what their parents say.  Any careless criticism, such as, “How can you be so stupid?”, “Your action embarrasses me,” “That’s really bad,” “You are hopeless,” etc is discouraging.  Since children cannot differentiate between degrees of criticism, they just accept it all and bury it inside their hearts.  Those words are like silkworms eating mulberry leaves—bite by bite they tear away a child’s self-image, and weaken his ability to improve in all areas of life.

In the same way, however, a child also remembers each time a parent praises him; those words are also deposited into the heart.  The more we parents say about the child’s ability, the more self-confidence he develops, and the better he wants to do.  This is just like what the Bible says—“A good word cheers [the human heart]” [Proverbs 12:25].

Whenever we are displeased with something our children do, we usually think that to point out his imperfection is the fastest way to deal with the situation, and we think that the harsher the words, the deeper impression it will make on the child.  However, when one acts this way, it lowers the child’s morale and does not produce the desired results.

My friend’s nine year old child takes piano lessons.  If the child makes a mistake while she is practicing, my friend criticizes her and says she is not playing good enough.  The child then looks like a ball that has lost all of its air and so her playing goes from bad to worse.  She sniffles and cries and then looses her temper and refuses to practice any more.  Because each criticism in effect says that the child lacks ability, the child looses the will to try again.  However, if the parent would exercise patience and not express displeasure when she hears a sour note, if she would praise her daughter whenever the piano playing is good, then the child would practice more and more.  The child might even invite her mother to sit with her and listen.  The mother could then give suggestions that the child would hear and accept.  By affirming the child’s ability in this way, the mother enhances the child’s self-confidence; she inflates the ball.

The Bible tells us to “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that you words may give grace to those who hear” [Ephesians 4:29].  When we say critical things without first thinking them through, we are apt to say things that discourage rather than encourage children.  In fact, such statements may cause pain for a long time to come.  On the other hand, heartfelt encouragement increases a child’s potential and helps him see himself in a very positive way—helps him paint an encouraging and very beautiful self-portrait on his own mind.  This helps him forge ahead toward an ideal.  Of all the people I know, Ms. Zhou does the best job at helping her children in this way.

Ms. Zhou has four children.  The family faced many hardships when the children were small, nonetheless the children were self-motivated and they helped with the housework in order to relieve some burden from their parents.  After they entered adulthood they continued to be considerate of the family and filial toward their parents.  Whenever I see Ms. Zhou she always has a very gentle disposition and she isn’t preachy.  How then was she able to rear her children so successfully?

Her magic wand was to praise her children in front of other people.  Whenever her child did something well, she would tell it to others in great detail.  If a child accomplished something at about 70%, she praised the child as if he had done 100%!  I never heard her complain about or reprimand her children.  How it warmed the child’s heart to hear mother tell an outsider of the child’s diligence, honesty, and good attitudes of responsibility and consideration.  In turn, the child made all the more effort to please his mother and to live up to the ideals she set.

Now that Ms. Zhou’s children are all grown and have their own families, she praises her grandchildren.  From her viewpoint, each of her grandchildren is obedient and sweet.  Outside the home each one is cute and well-behaved.  One of them is concerned whether grandma is wearing enough clothes in cold weather; another wants to share with grandma whatever goodies he is eating.  One can easily see that her magic wand is just as useful on the next generation.

Research tells us that it takes five expressions of praise to make up for what one expression of criticism does to a person’s psyche.  When parents are hypercritical and they don’t follow up with words of praise, a child ends up with a negative view of himself.  It is difficult for anyone who has lost hope in himself to make upward and positive progress.

Words are very powerful.  We can say things that encourage a child and we can say things that destroy their aspirations, and there is a large difference in which of these we choose to use.  Have you paid attention to your communication with your child, in order to build him a road of life rather than being a stumbling stone on his road toward maturity?

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