How to criticize your kids without ruining their self-esteem

The best praise is focused on your child’s effort, not your child’s traits.

The same is true of criticism.

stripslashes(strstr(" ", "class=") ? "" : "")Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear PressIn one study by Columbia University researchers, kindergarteners were given a scenario: a teacher asks them to create a house out of Legos, and they forget to put in windows. Then the teacher and child role-play what happens next, using dolls and speaking for them. (Researchers sometimes use this approach because young children readily imagine and insert themselves into role-playing scenarios.) Playing the part of her doll, the teacher says, “The house has no windows,” and gives one of the following three criticisms.

Person criticism: “I’m disappointed in you.”

Outcome criticism: “That’s not the right way to do it, because the blocks are not straightened up and are still messy.”

Process criticism: “Maybe you could think of another way to do it.”

Researchers, led by Melissa Kamins and Carol Dweck, then assessed the children’s feelings of self-worth: the extent to which the children felt smart, good, nice, and competent. The children rated their mood, and rated the house as a product.

Criticizing character hurts self-worth, mood, persistence

Children given person criticism rated themselves lower in self-worth, had a more negative mood, were less persistent, and were more likely to view this one instance of less-than-stellar performance as a reflection of their character (a fixed mindset instead of a growth mindset).

Children given process criticism had far more positive ratings in every category, while the ratings by children given outcome criticism landed somewhere in the middle.

The children were asked to keep role-playing: “What happens next?” The answers of the children given person criticism are a little bit heartbreaking:

“She should cry and go to bed.”
“The teacher got mad and went home.”
“He should get a time-out.”

The answers of the children given process criticism?

“I can do it again better if I take my time.”
“I’ll take it apart and put it together again with windows.”
“I would say it’s not finished yet, then I could cut out squares from paper and paste them onto the house.”

Dang, right?

What to say

In Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, I give examples of ways to criticize the process rather than the person:

  • “What do you think happened here?”
  • “What should we do differently next time?”
  • “Can you think of a better way to do it?”

This kind of thoughtful approach has been useful to me even when I’m not building Lego houses with my toddler. Such questions help me give her space to figure things out on her own — and eventually help teach her to evaluate her performance or her assumptions on her own.

“What’s another way you could do that?” I’ve asked when she can’t snap the strap of her favorite overalls because the hook has gotten turned around. Or when “her” bag keeps falling off her shoulder because it’s actually my bag.

When she gets distracted and spills her snack cup of raisins and nuts all over the floor, “What could you do differently next time?” reminds me to see exasperating moments as teaching opportunities instead.

Admittedly, the time I asked “What do you think happened here?” it wasn’t out of genuine curiosity or a teaching spirit. One day, during a long stretch of nap struggles, I walked into my toddler’s room to find her wreaking havoc instead of sleeping. Frustrated, I said, “Why did you take off your diaper?! Why did you make a big mess in your room?! Why aren’t you sleeping?!” She replied happily with a line from The Lorax by Dr. Seuss: “I don’t hopefully know.”

I didn’t get a satisfying answer from my line of questioning, but I did get a laugh. That improved my mood and mindset right along with my kid’s.

Take my mini-course: How to create a growth mindset


Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

One thought on “How to criticize your kids without ruining their self-esteem

  1. A remarkable research founding to give constructive criticism to children. I specially liked the classification of personal, outcome and process criticism. We criticize cbildren for hidden internal reasons. Despite wanting their good, with criticism we hurt them. These questions are useful to get away from the pitfall of criticism process.

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