As a nation, we believe that being critical improves people. Praise is usually followed by "but". So does criticism improve people? Why do we believe that people wouldn't want to improve themselves without our criticism? Do we really believe we can change people through "feedback"?
I personally believe that as individuals, we all have an innate desire to improve. We look for opportunities to challenge ourselves, to do better. We reflect on undesirable outcomes to look for reasons so that such outcomes can be avoided. However, in order to do any of this, we need confidence in ourselves and more often than not, criticism kills confidence.
So what builds confidence? In a nutshell, successful experiences especially the ones outside our comfort zone help in building confidence. Therefore opening yourself to new experiences and doing that well is probably the single biggest contributor. Being open to new experiences could be in the form of different challenge levels, going to new places, doing new activities or the same activities in new and different ways.
One may wonder what trying new has got to do with feedback and criticism since they are not mutually exclusive. That is true. As parents, our endeavour should be to expose our kids to as many new experiences as possible and encourage the ones that they are good at, rather than trying to improve the one they are not so good at. The confidence built from the success experiences of what a child is good at, gradually tends to percolate to other areas. This applies to skills and behaviour alike.
Let me explain this by citing a personal example. My eldest daughter has been blessed with multiple skills. An all-rounded individual, she learns fast and is good at singing, dancing, sports, art and studies. However, she is also a very sensitive child, has an unpredictable temperament and is prone to mood swings that would often lead to tantrums. Like most of my fellow parents, we too focused on getting her to stop throwing tantrums. We told her that often it was her behaviour that would make us lose our temper at her out of sheer frustration. However, all our feedback discussions did not work and her tantrums only increased with time. We realised only later that her tantrums was a result of her passion and vital energy; which when un-channeled to a productive use, manifested in the form of mood swings. It certainly had the potential to be channelized in a productive manner. We realized that our constant berating was not helping a fundamentally good child. We changed our behaviour and started appreciating her various talents and encouraging her to do the things she was good at. Over time, we saw a marked difference in her behaviour. Tantrums became a thing of the past and she came out of her shell.
Of course, I have had my philosophical struggles with pure appreciation and encouragement. My younger daughter is capable of beautiful art and is a very graceful dancer. However, she loves appreciation equally. She does not have the patience to perfect a movement or a piece of art in her hurry to showcase her work. Being a perfectionist myself, I would of course not be able to give false praise. An enthusiastic "good job!" was difficult to muster up and I was accused of being too critical. Finally I came across an article that solved my problems. It talked about how false praise could lead to children doing things for the sake of external praise. The author faced exactly the same challenges as I. Her solution - "I think this is good. Do you think you could do better? Is this your best effort? What else do you think you could add?" worked wonders. These questions helped me in two ways. Firstly I did not come across as the one criticizing and more importantly, she came up with suggestions herself.
Focusing on the good with sincere praise and encouragement can build confidence. As kids settle into their comfort zone, the same activities and routine no longer challenges them and build their confidence. Therefore, exposing them to new experiences and gradually taking them out of their comfort zone will keep challenging them and help them get into a virtuous cycle of confidence building. Our job as parents is to provide exposure, support and encouragement. That’s it. Let’s not complicate our lives and our kids’ lives!
- As published on Rivokids & ZenParent on 20th April 2016