Why Criticism and Shame Have No Place in Parenting
by Anna Kaminsky, Child Psychology Resources
Oct 24, 2020

Many parents who criticize their children have good intentions. They often hope that by pointing out their child's errors, they can help her (or him) overcome problem behaviours, learn the skills she needs to succeed socially and academically, and develop a strong sense of personal accountability. They intend, at base, to guide their child.

Unfortunately, parents don't always realize that delivery is absolutely everything when it comes to correcting a child. It's essential to understand that kids don't react to criticism like adults do. While another adult might be able to acknowledge his or her mistake and laugh it off when you deliver a bit of constructive criticism, children have not yet developed the perspective needed to do this. Children almost always internalize criticism, taking it to heart and sometimes sustaining lasting emotional wounds in the process. Moreover, shame-the inevitable byproduct of harsh criticism-has the power to undermine the very goals parents have in mind when they admonish their children.

Criticism Vs. Correction
Criticism and correction (a necessary form of guidance) should not be mistaken for being one and the same. Criticism differs from correction in that it focuses more strongly on judging a child than helping her. When we correct a child, we gently inform her of an error she's made and explain why her behaviour isn't productive. Telling a toddler not to take toys that don't belong to her without asking, for example, then patiently explaining why this action is harmful, is correction. It encourages the child to learn and do better next time. By contrast, grabbing the toys she's taken and telling her she's "being bad" is criticism. This kind of behaviour labels the child without providing adequate guidance.

5 Ways in Which Criticism and Shame Derail Development

1. Criticism blunts your child's sense of responsibility.
When you scold your child angrily, she becomes wholly preoccupied with how you feel about her. She immediately stops thinking about her original mistake and begins to focus on how she feels about your reaction to it. This distracts her from exploring the emotions that are directly associated with the consequences of her actions (such as regret and embarrassment). Instead, she'll project her anger onto you; i.e., she'll become preoccupied with how unfair you are. Over time, this will train her to focus not on what she needs to improve, but on how unfairly others treat her. She will, in other words, develop a mindset of victimhood, not personal accountability.

2. Criticism incubates feelings of shame.
Feeling remorse over misdeeds is normal and healthy; shame, on the other hand, is harmful. When we feel remorse, we regret taking a specific course of action (and usually vow to correct our behaviour). When we feel shame, we start to believe we're inherently flawed and therefore powerless to change. Ergo, if we want our children to willingly work on problem behaviours, we have to let them know it's okay to make mistakes. We have to build them up and encourage them to try again, not tear them down.

3. Criticism creates unnecessary pain.
Life is already challenging for your child. Every day, she must deal with academic pressure at school, social pressure from her peers, and the ever-present threat of online and offline bullying. Needlessly adding to her stress will make it more difficult for her to develop into a happy, healthy adult.

4. When you judge your child, she learns to judge herself.
The tone of any child's "inner monologue" is set by how her parents speak to her. If you habitually criticize your child, she'll start to criticize herself even more harshly. This can make it impossible for her to feel a true sense of reward when she achieves something (e.g., if she gets an A on an assignment, rather than being proud of herself, she'll beat herself up for not getting an A+). Furthermore, kids who become chronically scared of failure often refuse to even try to pursue their goals, which can severely impede their development.

5. Criticism undermines parent-child trust.
If your child feels rejected by you every time she makes a mistake, she'll eventually learn she can't trust you. In order for a strong parent-child bond to exist, your child needs to know you love her unconditionally.

How to Avoid Criticizing Your Child
More often than not, harsh words stem from parents' emotional reactions to their child's behaviour. They believe, usually mistakenly, that their child is intentionally being cruel or provoking when she engages in unhelpful actions. In reality, however, the reasons why children act out often have nothing to do with their parents. Far from wanting to be "bad," most children act out because they are hurt, confused, anxious, tired, overwhelmed, etc. It's therefore important not to take your child's behaviour personally; instead, take a deep breath and objectively assess the severity of what your child has done. If your child has hurt someone else (physically or emotionally), administer consequences (such as a removal of privileges) in a calm but firm way. At no point during this process should you label your child (i.e., call her "bad," lazy, "mean," etc.) Wait for her to calm down, then explain why her actions aren't acceptable. After you've gotten through to her, remind her that she's loved.

If no one was hurt by your child's actions, consequences probably aren't necessary. In this case, you can skip to the final step described above: Just wait for her to calm down and then explain where she went wrong and how to do better next time. Remember that the objective of correction is to help your child learn the best possible lesson while minimizing negative emotions.

Note that it's often helpful to try listening to your child when she's being challenging. Your child is probably trying to communicate a need to you, but because she lacks the verbal tools required to do so, it's manifesting as difficult behaviour. If you can discover her need and help her meet it, the difficult behaviour will probably cease. Furthermore, your child will walk away from the experience feeling loved, valued, empowered, and ready to take responsibility for her own actions. When children and their parents can work together in this way, the stage is set for healthy growth and development.