A: Thanks for writing; trust me when I say you are not alone in having a child who doesn’t enjoy criticism. In fact, when I read your note, I thought to myself, “Wait, who does enjoy criticism?” Unless you are accustomed to be being picked apart, most humans bristle at being critiqued, children most of all.
To understand why your almost-4-year-old doesn’t like criticism requires that you understand your child and how she is developing. First, 4 is a fun but intense age. The highs are high and the lows are low, but there are many signs of emerging maturity. You begin to see the 4-year-old show more consideration and patience and ability to follow more directions.
Here’s where you may be running into some trouble: If your child is happily chattering about school or a show or a game and you interrupt her with “get your feet off of the table,” you have broken a connection between the two of you. This isn’t a huge problem. I can virtually feel everyone reading this rolling their eyes at me, and I’m not suggesting we stop instructing, correcting and guiding our children.
But there’s something to be said about the quantity and timing of these corrections. Like it or not, they can erode a relationship.
Imagine you are telling a story to a friend and you are right at the good part. I mean, it’s really funny, and she stops you with, “Hey, you need a coaster for your glass.” Whoosh. All the energy is gone. She may ask you to continue, but the moment has passed. You feel cranky and like, “No, I’m done sharing.” Now, if your friend had listened and wordlessly put a coaster under your glass, poof! No problems.
Your 4-year-old cannot hide her displeasure with your interruptions and corrections. When you stop her, mid-story, she doesn’t feel heard, and her way of handling that frustration is to be silly.
What are you supposed to do if any critique leads to shenanigans? Let’s take a look at how often you are criticizing her. Take 15 minutes during your time with her and be honest about your praise-to-critique ratio. If you are only remarking on what your daughter needs to change, you are going to get misbehavior. Instead, ratchet up the praise, smiles and eye contact, because that facilitates cooperation, warmth and joy.
While you’re at it, decide what you are willing to go to the mat for. It isn’t fair to hold a preschooler to too many expectations; it isn’t developmentally appropriate. Decide what you will never let slide. For instance, I would not allow my children to jump on my couches, period. Other parents can decide they are not concerned about this, and that’s their right. I encourage you to choose your boundaries and critiques, hold them, and let everything else go.
Also, find nonverbal ways to guide her (good preschool teachers are masters at this). You don’t need to actually say anything to maneuver feet off of a table, and because you know critiques spark bad behavior, challenge yourself to speak about what needs changing as little as possible. Again, this doesn’t mean you let go of your boundaries; it means you catch yourself when you offer too many critiques.
Finally, one of the most important concepts I learned in my training is “connect before you direct.” This means connection — a warm, loving relationship — is how and why children want to be good for us. Though some criticisms may need to happen, the younger the child, the more a loving connection is needed. So, when you ask how to help your daughter through her discomfort, I suggest you stop purposely making her uncomfortable. She’s simply too little to handle it.
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