The human tongue is more poisonous than a bee’s sting. —Vietnamese Proverb
I often have discussions with parents on criticism versus critique. It is easy to be caught in a discussion with your teenager and to focus on the items in their teenage life that are not going according to the plan that you want or are pushing toward. It is easy to offer criticism. Let me explain my viewpoint on criticism. Criticism attacks the person. In a simple word applied to the teenage parent relationship, it is mean. It starts with a few words coming out of the parent’s mouth that were meant to offer (well give) advice which ends up criticizing the choice or the decision that your teenager has made. As those few words pour out and become a monologue of critical subjective items that you feel your teenager has done poorly, the message of unconditional love and respect are lost. Damage is done to the relationship. As a parent, I know that the intent was to provide honest guidance and feedback, to help your teenager make choices that agree with your values and your plan for your teenager. However, your teenager is developing critical thinking skills, and as a parent we need to offer guidance and foster the growth of our teenager’s critical thinking skills. It is also important to take the time to understand that the goals and expectations you have for your teenager may not be the path or goal that they have. That is a separate topic on having open communication that facilitates the discussion of your goals or vision for your teenager against the views and goals that your teenager may have for their own life.
After the monologue of criticism has ended, your teenager may feel rejected, small, hurt, and become defiant and feel the need to defend their decision and choices. The criticism has broken down your teenager, broken down communication, and has hurt the relationship. I compare it to a styrofoam cup, when the cup is new it holds water easily, no leaking. Now imagine that criticism punctures a whole right through the cup. The criticism did not stop at one item or behavior but often carries on to other behaviors and therefore more holes are punched into that styrofoam cup. Now the cup cannot hold water, and the water is coming out the holes. Generally, as a parent we try to plug those holes and undo some of the destructive communication. However, as you picture the water running out of the holes in this styrofoam cup it is hard to plug the holes effectively, and there is damage to the relationship. Often parents tell me the conversation has become a yelling match with each person using personal attacks and not listening to the other person. The unity of the conversation is lost. It is a great trait to be able to be honest with your teenager. It is so important to be able to foster that honesty though a critique. Yes, a critique is a more constructive way to build the teenager parent relationship and foster critical thinking and problem solving skills in our teenagers.
A critique enhances performance. It allows for evaluation of a behavior and outcome in a positive way that demonstrates unconditional love and respect and encourages both critical thinking and problem solving skills. A sample way to open up a dialogue, “I think you will get better results if____ , what do you think?” Or, “What would you change if you could do this all over?” It is about creating dialogue and the opportunity for communication. A critique is sharing in a positive and powerful way. The purpose of the critique is to have discussion questions that guide and stimulate the conversation, to challenge and build critical thinking skills. The critique allows for the teenager to express their own ideas and to evaluate their effectiveness in solving the situation. This conversation encourages the teenager to understand what worked well, what they can do differently, but it also provides them with the building blocks of skills that they can apply to the next situation that may have some similarities. That is a big part of the communication process with teenagers. Realizing that in just a few short years our teenager will be off at college or in the workforce where they will have to use their own critical thinking skills to solve problems related to their job or college life. It is the responsibility of parents to foster the growth of these skills. It is a great challenge to effectively critique our own failures and success and to learn and grow by them.
I encourage parents to engage in the conversation of critiquing and listening. It is much more difficult to listen and provide questions that encourage the teenager to evaluate their behavior, outcome, and pathway to improve. By critiquing, the communication continues to be a dialogue that is open and demonstrates respect and unconditional love toward each other. Teenagers have their own goals and must be encouraged to be independent to take steps to reach their goals, but also must develop the maturity to accept the consequences of their actions and choices. One of the consequences is to critique the success or failure of an outcome if appropriate.
What behaviors often come up in the parent-teenage conversation which quickly erode into criticism instead of a critique and action plan for change? Most common are academic grades, or homework assignments. Next is athletic performance, followed by life choices.
Faber, A., Mazlish, M. (2012). How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk. New York, NY: Scribner
Luntz, F. (2008). Words that work: It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear. New York, NY: Hyperion.