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 and Adolescent Psychology found that children who are constantly being criticized develop a habit of avoiding looking at other people’s facial expressions—whether those people are expressing positive or negative feelings.1 By avoiding looking at other people, children’s ability to receive positive information and make positive social connections is undermined. Researchers suggest that 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 your children.2 With depression, anxiety, and suicide on the rise for youth across our nation, it is more important than ever to examine how we parent and talk to our children during these early childhood years.
Parenting with Encouragement Instead of Criticism
It’s helpful to consider how we might make adjustments to improve our techniques. This can benefit our children’s mental health for years to come. Here are some ways to get started:
Examine How You Communicate
As parents, caregivers, and educators, we first need to ask ourselves 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, potty training, feeding my kids, taking them to activities, folding laundry, soothing tantrums, grocery shopping, washing dishes, writing, etc., the last thing I want to do is another task. Especially one that involves self-analysis. But when I consider the long-term benefits of speaking kindly to my children and improving my communication with them, it’s worth the time it takes to reflect and self-improve. Luckily, these adjustments can be small and easily woven into our daily activities.
For example, try waking up tomorrow morning and intend it to be a day where you consciously choose to 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 down 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—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 to communicate better with others. One technique I learned was to use a hand-held recorder and record mantras and prayers that are uplifting and inspirational. Some are prayers I made up; others are from the Bible/spiritual teachings, online blogs and articles, or books I’m reading. Saying positive things to myself, like parenting affirmations, helps me to re-wire negative thinking.
Then, first thing in the morning, in front of the mirror, when I’m driving, or before I go to bed, I will play the recorder and repeat back what my voice has said. (I leave recorded silence between mantras, so there is space for me to repeat back what I heard myself say in the recording). If I’m having a hectic day, I can turn on my recorder, and the act of saying positive things out loud helps to re-wire my brain and reset my mood.
I have seen the positive ripple effect firsthand. My daughters love it when I do this, particularly when we’re in the car. “You’re happy, Mom!” my older toddler will say gleefully as I turn on the recorder and speak. Their moods get lightened, and we all feel better.
This technique is particularly useful as a mom. Practicing the technique of positive self-talk is like strengthening your muscles at the gym. You have to practice it to get stronger. The more you speak positive words to yourself, the more naturally you pass those encouraging words on to your children.
Break the Cycle of Criticism
Parenting with encouragement instead of criticism is a practice of breaking bad habits or generational cycles of bad habits. When you take the time to notice how you’re talking to your kids, you may find a negative cycle ingrained in your everyday communication patterns. In some cases, criticism and punishment lead to defiance, secretiveness, and withdrawal in your child. As a parent, you may feel even more disapproving when this happens and then ramp up your criticism as a result. This creates an unhealthy cycle. Perhaps one you experienced as a child yourself. What’s the solution?
Break the cycle. Stop the criticism. The next time you find yourself engaged in conflict with your child (whether they are throwing a tantrum, told a lie, broke your rules, etc.), try to lovingly detach. Then try to get curious about the situation instead of immediately labeling your child or judging them. Bite your tongue if you feel like you are about to say something critical or harsh. Practice walking away or taking deep breaths instead.
Let your curiosity allow you to become an observer. And to help you cultivate patience and active listening skills. Try to listen to what they say and how they feel. Doing this strengthens your muscles of self-control, patience, and compassion. If you (or they) are too elevated or upset to do this, then simply 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 toddler in a safe space (such as their crib, pack and play, etc.), asking your child to go to their room (if they are a bit older), or safely separating for a few minutes while you both calm down. Once you can be alone, practice some slow breaths and journal about how you’re feeling. Or listen to calming music, pray, or call a friend/supportive person/accountability partner. These activities are excellent examples of taking care of yourself to best care for those around you.
Cultivate Time and Space for Positive Interactions
Make intentional time and space for interacting in playful, pressure-free, 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:
Set aside half a day (or a whole day if you can) where nothing is scheduled.
This may be a weekend day, a day you have no work, or your child has no daycare/school. This allows you to have less stress and pressure on your shoulders. This pressure-free time enables 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. These are great times to practice speaking respectfully and encouragingly to your child while playing and learning together.
Car rides. When driving, consider making it a time to practice 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 right now (your sibling) is playing with that. Stop taking (Sibling’s) toy and keep your hands to yourself. Would you like another toy to hold instead?” If they cooperate, praise their action, i.e., “Thank you for giving his toy back. You are a good listener!”
Sharing a meal together.
Eat breakfast or dinner together without having to be somewhere afterward (or leave enough time so the experience does not feel rushed). This will open up space for you and your family members to tell stories, complement each other, and laugh together. Practicing positive talk strengthens everyone’s ability to do more of it.
Take 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 nowadays have a children’s section. You can read to your little one, play with toys, and otherwise spend time together. Compliment the things they do and encourage them to read, play, say hello to new friends, etc. They will love hearing your voice and the encouraging tones of voice you use while talking to them.
Spend fifteen 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, cuddling your toddler or baby in a rocking chair, singing to them, or praising your child for things they did during the day.
Parenting with encouragement provides a strong foundation for growing your child’s self-esteem, nurturing healthy relationships with others, and building a solid social-emotional foundation for personal development. Taken together, these approaches to communicating more effectively using encouragement instead of criticism can benefit your child for a lifetime to come.