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Jewish World Review May 1, 2003 / 29 Nisan, 5763

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Consumer Reports

I hate to be critical ---- but criticizing kids is OK | Of all the tenaciously held "accepted wisdom" of today's parenting elite, at the top of the list has to be: "criticize the behavior, not the child," as the authors of "What to Expect: The Toddler Years," put it, a book held by many to be revealed wisdom.

The Web site "Just for Kids Only," under its "tips for parents," says, "Do not criticize your child. If at all, criticize your child's behavior." Psychologist David Goodman, of Oak Park, Ill., echoes his profession when he says, "Don't criticize your child. . . only the behavior is bad."

Again, "Separate the child from his behavior," and "don't blame or shame," preaches the Web site, "The Art of Positive Parenting."

Well I hate to be critical - but these folks don't make sense.

How did they all come up with this view? Who knows? Aside from allusions to self-esteem, these sources seem to accept the notion of never criticizing a child as de facto obvious, no explanation needed.

But can someone please explain to me how in normal circumstances one can separate the misbehavior of the child from the child conducting and directing the misbehavior? I mean, that would be a neat trick. If little five-year-old Stevie is deliberately spiteful to his younger sister, or if seven-year-old Susie calls her little brother nasty names in order to drive him to tears or drive him away, just where do parents think such behavior comes from? Outer space? Did it arrive in the morning mail? Perhaps it was the prize in the cereal box?

No, the answer, of course, is that spiteful, or selfish, or unkind or nasty behavior comes from the heart. To pretend otherwise, or to sugar coat it and call it something other than it is, does our children a terrible disservice.

Pediatrician Donna D'Alessandro tells parents through the Virtual Children's Hospital Web site not to criticize their children because "criticism can make a child feel bad." Well, no doubt. And no doubt the typical child should, at times, feel bad about himself for something he has done. That's what used to be called developing a conscience.

It's protective. It is, after all, that bad feeling, or conscience, which over time may help that child to stop the particular bad behavior.

Yes, the process may hurt, but it is what shapes our character and our humanity.

Conversely, a typical child who learns "I shouldn't feel bad about myself," even when he's behaved badly, who has his bad behavior routinely labeled as something else, or who has come to believe that he and his behavior are somehow separate so he's not responsible for the latter - that is a child that may very well over time have his conscience deadened and his humanity stunted.

No wonder there is a growing body of evidence that children raised in the "I feel good about myself" world of self-esteem may too often become narcissistic, arrogant adults.

One recent study reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology even found that people with unrealistically high self-esteem were more likely to become aggressive when they were criticized than were their peers with lower self-esteem.

A little common sense can be helpful here.

Along with trying to model good behavior and giving my four little ones lots of encouragement, "You are being really generous to your sister - terrific" "You're being patient on these long errands - I appreciate it," " there are also times when I - gasp - criticize them. I might say, "Dear, you are being really unkind to your brother," or to another "You are being selfish," or maybe "spiteful" right now. Sometimes - double gasp - I actually let my kids know that they should be ashamed of themselves.

Now I would not tell my kids they were "mean" or "selfish" people, for instance, and so define them in such a way. Every moment they have the ability to do better, to be better, and their dad and I let them know that and encourage them to those ends. Yes, we take into account extenuating circumstances like fatigue or frustration. And no matter what, our kids know they are loved unconditionally, not because they are good or when they are good - but simply because they are our children.

But their behavior, good and bad, grows out of who they are. And unlike the parenting elite, I am confident that lovingly helping them to understand that will over time help them to grow to be better people.

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JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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