As both a parent and an educator, I hope to parent with encouragement instead of criticism. But like any parent, I’m not perfect, and I’ve been on my journey to learn how to discipline my children without criticizing them when they make a mistake. This topic has been of particular interest to me over the years.
A fascinating article published in The Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology found that constantly criticized children develop a habit of avoiding looking at other people’s facial expressions, whether those people express positive or negative feelings.1 When children avoid looking at others, their ability to receive positive information and make positive social connections is undermined. Researchers suggest this could lead to depression and anxiety in that child.1
More and more scientific research shows how parenting and education techniques around encouragement rather than criticism can lead to a healthier self-image and positive behavior in children.2 With depression, anxiety, and suicide on the rise for youth nationwide, examining how we parent and talk to our children during these early childhood years is more important than ever.3,4,5
Tips for Parenting With Encouragement
It’s helpful to consider how we might make adjustments to improve our techniques so that we’re parenting with encouragement instead of criticism. This can benefit our children’s mental health for years to come.2 Here are some ways to get started:
Examine How You Communicate
As parents, caregivers, and educators, we must first examine how we speak to our kiddos regularly and assess our communication style. It can seem like extra work to slow down and cultivate mindfulness around communicating with our kids, but the result is worth the effort.
I’m a mom of two toddlers myself. After a long day of changing diapers, soothing tantrums, grocery shopping, washing dishes, writing, etc., the last thing I want is another task. Especially one that involves self-analysis. But it’s worth taking the time to reflect and self-improve when considering the long-term benefits of speaking kindly to my children and improving my communication with them.6 These adjustments can be small and easily woven into our daily activities.
For example, try waking up tomorrow morning and consciously observe how you talk to and interact with your children. You can keep a journal or use the notes app on your phone to write a few things you notice yourself saying to them. Or, make a mental note if that works better for you. You can also try this activity with a friend, family member, or spouse to hold one another accountable. Then, check in with yourself or your accountability partner at the end of the day.
Be gentle with yourself — making mistakes as a parent is okay. If you don’t like how you’re talking to your kids, remember to celebrate that you are cultivating self-awareness and are willing to make positive changes. That’s huge!
Improve How You Talk to Yourself (And Your Kids)
Some days, I wake up, and for whatever reason, “stinkin’ thinkin'” — or negative self-talk — seems to be the order of the day. It’s not by choice and certainly not what I want for myself. When we speak to ourselves harshly, this often translates to how we talk to everyone around us. So, what do we do? First, we need to be aware of it and improve the way we speak to ourselves.
I worked with an excellent therapist five years ago and learned how to improve how I talk to myself. This has had a very positive effect on my self-esteem. It has also helped me communicate better with others. And science backs this up! Some research indicates that positive affirmations light up the reward center in our brains (the same bit that responds to fun or pleasurable activities like eating good food, winning, etc.). When this pathway fires up your brain, it changes the parts of your brain that make you feel positive and happy.8
From personal experience, I can vouch that saying positive things to myself, like parenting affirmations, has helped me rewire negative thinking. Practicing positive self-talk is like strengthening your muscles at the gym. You have to practice it to get stronger. In addition, it’s great for our kids to see us do this. The more you speak positive words to yourself, the more naturally you pass those encouraging words on to your children.7
Break the Cycle of Criticism
Parenting with encouragement instead of criticism is the practice of breaking bad habits. When you notice how you talk to your kids, you may find a negative cycle ingrained in your communication patterns. Sometimes, criticism and punishment lead to defiance, secretiveness, and withdrawal in children. You may feel even more disapproving when this happens and ramp up your criticism. This creates an unhealthy cycle, perhaps one you experienced as a child.
The next time you’re in conflict with your child (whether they are throwing a tantrum, told a lie, broke your rules, etc.), try to detach lovingly. Then, get curious about the situation instead of labeling or judging your child. Bite your tongue if you are about to say something critical or harsh. Practice walking away or taking deep breaths. Try to become an observer to cultivate patience and active listening skills. Listening to what they say and how they feel can strengthen your self-control and compassion.
If you (or they) are too elevated or upset, take a break from each other. Putting space between yourself and a hysterical or defiant toddler or crying baby can be healthy (as long as the child is safe). This can mean putting your child in a safe space (such as their crib or pack-and-play) or asking them to go to their room.
Once you’re alone, do some self-care activities to calm down, such as:
- Practicing slow breathing
- Journaling how you feel
- Listening to calming music
- Praying or calling a friend or accountability partner
Cultivate Time and Space for Positive Interactions
Make intentional time and space for interacting in playful, joyful, humorous, light-hearted, and open-ended ways. We often find ourselves caught up in activities and rushing from one thing to another. Take time to open up unstructured space. Some examples are:
Setting Aside Half a Day To Interact
Set aside half a day (or a whole day if possible) where nothing is scheduled. This may be a weekend, a no-work day, or when your child has no daycare/school. This allows you to have less stress and pressure on your shoulders, enabling interactions and experiences to arise organically. You may find yourself taking your baby to the park, heading to a science museum with your toddlers, or making a fort in the living room and hanging out under the blankets. You can practice speaking respectfully and encouragingly to your child while playing and learning together.
Going for a Car Ride
When driving, consider practicing encouragement and speaking praise over your youngster. If you need to discipline your child, start with a positive point before following with a disciplinary word. For example, if you have two children in the backseat and one is trying to take a toy away from their sibling, say, “[Name], you did a great job sharing your toys yesterday! But now, [their sibling’s name] is playing with that. Stop taking [sibling name]’s toy and keep your hands to yourself. Would you like another toy to hold instead?” If they cooperate, praise their action. You could say, “Thank you for returning their toy. You are a good listener!”
Sharing a Meal
Eat breakfast or dinner together without having to be somewhere afterward. Or try to leave enough time so the experience does not feel rushed. This will open space for you and your family to tell stories, give each other compliments, and laugh together. Practicing positive talk can strengthen everyone’s ability to do more of it.
Taking Your Little One to the Library
Carve out an hour or more to interact one-on-one with your child at a library. Most public libraries today have a children’s section. You can read to your little one, play with toys, and spend time together. Compliment positive things they do and encourage them to read, play, say hello to new friends, etc. They will love hearing the sound of your voice and the encouraging tone you use.
Spending 15 Minutes Together (Or More) Before Bed
Make time to connect without screens before going to bed. This may look like bathing your kiddo, reading a story together in bed, or cuddling them in a rocking chair. You might also sing to them or praise your child for things they did during the day.
Parenting with encouragement provides a strong foundation for growing your child’s self-esteem.2 It also helps nurture healthy relationships with others and builds a solid social-emotional foundation for personal development.2,6 These approaches to communicating more effectively and using encouragement instead of criticism can benefit your child for a lifetime.