Giving constructive criticism to our children - both positive and negative - is an important part of parenting. Empty, generic praise ("What a lovely picture, darling"), well-meant encouragement that does the opposite ("At least you didn't come last") and angry disappointment ("I expected you to do better than that!") do not give a child much indication of what they are doing wrong or right.
Meaningful feedback, on the other hand, helps children know if they are on track (or how far from the track they have deviated). It helps them analyse their performance and learn from their mistakes.
Why is feedback important?
- It helps your child focus and reflect on their work.
- It gives your child motivation and direction for future improvement.
- It may give them inspiration, hope or a 'Eureka' moment.
- It can build confidence and resilience and remove self-doubt.
Here are some tips for crafting useful and helpful feedback:
If you were giving feedback in a professional situation, you would spend time reviewing, analysing and clarifying your thoughts in advance. While such a formality may be overkill for critiquing a four-year-old's finger painting , make sure you put some thought into your child’s work and what you want to say before launching in.
Things to consider:
- Do you have all the facts/information? What was expected of them? What do the marks mean/how were they graded?
- Have you looked at their work/heard them play/seen them perform/watched them in action?
- Have you compared current work to previous work? Is there an improvement?
- Can you ascertain which parts worked and which didn’t and explain why to your child?
- What was your child going through while they were going through the process? Were they ill, struggling to catch up, going through a low patch, overwhelmed with extracurricular activities, etc? Did they enjoy the process or struggle with it?
Try to keep your emotions out of the frame
It’s natural, as parents, to feel disappointment when our kids don’t make the grade or to have a certain amount of elation when they do well. We may even feel angry when our child has messed up through lack of effort or application.
However, when giving feedback, avoid the tears, threats and ecstatic superlatives. Keep it neutral. This is not about how their work and results affect you, it’s about helping them analyse and reflect on their performance.
Be honest and realistic
Kids can smell a rat. There’s no point telling them, “If you just work a bit harder next term, you could be top of the grade” if you know that’s not true, or describing their jazz solo as “absolutely amazing’ when half of it was off-key.
It’s always difficult to give negative feedback when your child has messed up but they’re not going to trust your judgement if you constantly tell them they were wonderful and gloss over all the glaring booboos.
Be realistic about what your child is capable of and what is normal to expect of a child of their age. Don’t criticise them for something they are not yet mature enough to achieve.
It’s also important to let your child take responsibility for their mistakes. If they received poor results because they wasted time or put in little effort, don’t praise their (non-existent) hard work or lay the blame with their teachers or fellow students.
Be gentle and compassionate
Don’t undermine their confidence or trample on their self-esteem with hurtful, negative comments, even if you know they didn’t try very hard. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t draw weaker areas to their attention, just do it with kindness.
Try the ‘positive-negative-sandwich’ where you place a negative comment (or problem to be tackled) between positive, encouraging ones. For example:
“I love how you’ve laid out all your working-out so that it’s really easy to see your approach and how you came to your answer." (Positive).
‘You might want to review your nine times table because you can see here is where you came unstuck … " (Negative)
“… but I can see you’re really getting the hang of long division now.” (Positive)
If their poor performance was entirely their own fault – perhaps because they were lazy or didn’t apply themselves – try to avoid lecturing them. There may be some cause behind it, such as anxiety, fear of taking risks or low self-esteem (“What’s the point in trying? I’m rubbish at art!”). Or they might need some help and support with planning or time-management. Resist the “I told you so!”s and help them get to the bottom of their lack of motivation.
Avoid praising ability
Of course your child will love hearing how talented and intelligent they are! Sadly, this can have a negative impact on their future effort and motivation. How will they tackle really difficult challenges if they think they have to rely on natural ability?
Instead, commend the areas of their achievements that were under their control, eg planning, practice, approach, attitude, trouble-shooting, perseverance, creativity.
Don’t praise effort when things go wrong
There’s nothing worse than being told “At least you did your best” when you’ve done something badly. It makes you feel that no matter how hard you try, you’re never going to improve. Better to be specific and highlight the parts of the process that were successful due to effort and application.
Avoid generalisations: “Great marks. Well done!”, “What an amazing performance, I really enjoyed that”, “Oh what a shame. You came so close”, “This essay is rubbish!”
Better to discuss:
- What worked/what didn’t and why
- What can be improved on and how?
- What could your child do differently next time?
Help your child critique their own work and reflect on the process by prompting them with questions.
- Ask open-ended questions (not ones that can be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no).
- Ask them about their inspiration, ideas and thought process.
- How did they manage their work and organise their time?
- What did they think they did well/badly and why?
- What did they learn on the way?
- How could they have done things differently?
- What areas might they need help/support with?
Hear them out
It may be glaringly obvious to you where your child has succeeded or failed but take time to listen to their answers.
Listening to your child shows them that their opinions are important. Vocalising their view-point helps them focus and analyse where they went wrong (or right). Their take on things may give you greater insight into where problems or solutions lie.
Give feedback on the process not just the result
Your child’s performance in a school play may have been a disaster despite being amazing in rehearsals. Their low maths grades may mask the huge strides they have made in trigonometry this term. Their school project may have been hurried and incomplete while some of the individual components showed great thought and design.
It can take time - years sometimes - to get things right. Confidence, technical skills, time management, comprehension - your child is not going to master everything straight away. Improvement and progression are worth praising.
Offer help, support and guidance
Ask your child:
- What is under their control that they can change?
- How could they do this?
- Is there anything you can do to help them?
- Do they think they would benefit from specialist help, eg practice on an app/website, extra-curricular sports lessons, private tuition?
Receiving and applying feedback is an important skill your child will need in their adult lives; relationship management, job appraisals, customer service, trouble shooting, project management, conflict resolution - all require the ability to take criticism and apply it. By giving our children kind, effective criticism from an early age, they learn to view feedback as an opportunity for growth and not a threat.