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Correcting children’s behavior without criticism

Do you sometimes feel like you are correcting your children too often? Or perhaps they are shutting down even before you begin reproaching them (for example, by rolling their eyes or actively ignoring you), showing that you are criticizing them excessively. In those moments you may realize that not only your efforts are not efficient, but they also provoke feelings of anxiety or anger.

You might even have a reasonable explanation for why you always criticize your children: maybe they are not following your requests and you end up repeating the same thing over and over again; or perhaps you feel that as a responsible adult who is in charge of their upbringing, it is a large part of your parenting job to constantly keep correcting them so no teachable moment will be missed. How else can you teach your children what they need to know, whether it is washing the dishes, making their beds, taking trash out, folding laundry or completing their homework?

A significant part of the parents’ job is to keep children in check and teach them to be independent. Yet if you find yourself constantly correcting, criticizing and reprimanding your children, the continuous pressure they are under will produce adults who believe they are not good enough. These children will end up giving up before they try, believing they can’t succeed.

Nevertheless, you still need to parent and guide your children. How can you do this, while creating a productive environment, colored by acceptance and trust instead of frustration and anger? A few practical principles will help you to achieve this seemingly unattainable goal:

Pause: Before you react by criticizing or correcting, take a moment to understand how the child’s behavior is making you feel. Perhaps you are anxious ("I am afraid that she will never be able to become independent"), or angry ("What do I need to do to make her do what I want?!”), or resentful ("I do so much for her, and she doesn’t appreciate anything!"), or simply tired ("I'm so tired and here she is being difficult again…"). By pausing to reflect, you are inevitably going to feel less emotional, and able to transform the strong emotion into a neutral statement, instead of diving into accusations or criticism. Try telling your child how they can do better next time: “Next time you can….”

Take a break: If you realize that you are on the verge of blowing up and saying something you will regret later, take a break by leaving the room. If your children are very young, make sure they are safe. Then, calm down by taking a few deep breaths or drinking a glass of water. When both you and your child had a chance to calm down, come back to face the situation.

Speak only once and be brief: Before you start talking, make sure that you are being heard: the child is next to you, and not in the other room, he is looking at you and not busy playing or watching TV. If we speak many times, we gradually cease to be heard and our voice starts being perceived as intrusive background noise, which the brain filters out. After you've told the child what to do once, use a single word instead of a long sermon. For example, say “teeth” if you see that the child did not brush his teeth.

Start on a positive note: Even if you need to fix a misbehavior, it is better to start with a praise or by noticing a positive behavior, before continuing with a reprimand: “Thank you for folding the laundry all by yourself, I really appreciate it! Next time, please put your clean clothes away.”

Pick your battles: Do not pick on every misbehavior – sometimes it is worthwhile ignoring smaller disobediences (for example, picking up their clothes from the floor and putting them in the laundry), especially if you would like to focus on a more important task (for example, finishing their homework). Children’s brains are not yet developed enough to swiftly recover from a reprimand and concentrate on something else.

Share responsibility: If you are not a single parent, share the scolding duty, as it is not a good idea to have one of you being a “good cop” and the other “the bad cop”. Even if one of you is the main caregiver or a stay-at-home parent, leave certain misbehaviors for the other parent to correct. However, ensure that you are not disciplining the child for the same behavior because no one wants to be reprimanded twice for the same thing.

Use tools: If your child is being forgetful, provide a reminder by writing it on a sticky not and put it on their room door or somewhere where they surely notice it. Sometimes, creating a to-do list so you don't have to nag your kids about regular tasks and chores, such as putting their clothes in the laundry, is very efficient. Then, instead of a long lecture, you can simply point to the chore list without words. With younger children a visual chore board in which pictures replace words is going to be more effective. Using a timer or hourglass is also very helpful because children generally have poor sense of time. If they fail to turn off the cartoon after ten minutes, it is not because they want to defy you, but because they simply lost the sense of time. An added benefit to using a timer, is that you are minimizing your disciplining role by delegating the unpleasant task of stopping something fun to the timer.

With time, your voice will gradually turn into your child’s inner voice and wouldn’t it be lovely if this voice is kind and supportive? Because when their internal world is filled with forgiveness and compassion, children are internally motivated to continue learning and enjoying life experiences, instead of fearing them. It is when we are able to forgive our own mistakes, focus on fixing them and know how to support ourselves even when not everything works out the right way, that we become resilient and thrive.

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