Between Parent and Teenager
By Dr. Haim G. Ginott
May be copied for noncommercial, educational purposes

CHAPTERS: 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10

Chapter 4 – Criticism: a new approach

Parental criticism is unhelpful. It creates anger, resentment, and defiance. There are even worse effects. When a teenager is constantly criticized he learns to condemn himself and to find fault with others. He learns to doubt his own worth, and to belittle the value of others. He learns to suspect people, and to expect personal doom. Criticism is unnecessary. When we take a wrong turn on a road and lose our way, the last thing we need is criticism. It is not helpful to have our driving skills and character analyzed and evaluated at this point. What we need is a friendly person to give us clear directions. It is not helpful to be asked:

“Why did you take the wrong turn?”

“Didn't you see the signs?”

“Can't you read?”

“Why don't you think before you turn?”

“You always think you know the way.”

“Can't you ask for directions?”

A lesson in living

Ed, age fourteen, promised to wash the family car. He forgot to do it and then made a last-minute attempt to do the job.

FATHER: The car needs more work, especially on the top and on the left side. When can you do it?

ED: I can work on the car tonight, Dad.

FATHER: Thank you.

In the hands of a more critical director this incident could have become a flaming drama.

FATHER: Did you wash the car?

SON: Yes, Dad.

FATHER: Are you sure?

SON: Sure, I'm sure!

FATHER: Then why is it so dirty? It's filthy! It looks worse than it did before!

SON: But I washed it!

FATHER: You call that washing? You played – like you always do. Fun – that's all you want! You think you can go through life like that? With such sloppy work, you won't last one day on a job. You're irresponsible – that's what you are!

Helpful problem solving

Constructive problem solving has one main function: To point out what has to be done in the situation. Helpful problem solving does not address itself to the personality. It deals with difficult event. It never attacks the person.

When Felix, age sixteen, failed chemistry for the second semester, his father became alarmed. He called Felix in for conversation. He concentrated on one point: “What can be done to help with this difficult subject?” Father was not provoked to discuss the past or to make predictions about the future. He did not assign blame nor threaten with consequences. He maintained a problem-solving attitude. “We have a problem – let's find a solution.”

Unhelpful criticism

To be effective as parents we may have to unlearn some deeply ingrained lessons from our own childhood. Those who do not learn from the past are compelled to repeat it. Our aim is to avoid such blind repetition. The following excerpts from a parents' discussion group illustrate this point:

MRS. A: When I get angry, certain phrases come to my mind full-blown. I don't have to compose them. I even use the same tone my mother did thirty years ago.

MR. B: My father used to call me “stupid” and I hated it. Now I find myself using the same label with my son. I don't like it at all. I don't like myself when I do it.

MRS. C: I'm so used to being criticized that it comes naturally to me. I use exactly the same words my mother used against me, when I was a child. I never did anything right and she always make me do things over. I do the same to my children.

MR. D: My parents had a rich collection of insults in three languages. They gave them out generously. I try hard not to inflict them on my children. But when I get angry I can't seem to help myself.

MRS. E: My mother was a singer. When she got angry she sang insults in Italian and in English!

All of us carry within ourselves a private collection of instant insults. This relic of our past is a needless burden. We can learn to communicate without sarcasm and ridicule. There is no place for biting comments in conversations between parents and teenagers. Sarcasm evokes resentment and provokes counterattacks.

Says sixteen-year-old Stanley , “My father has a talent for sarcasm. His tongue is like a whip. He can cut down in a minute what you have built in a month. Last week, I won our school's tennis tournament. I felt great. I was on top of the world. I said to my father, ‘Hey Dad, I just beat the captain of our tennis team.' In a tone full of contempt, my father replied, ‘Some captain!' At that moment, I went mad. I was filled with such fury that I was afraid to stay near him. I yelled back, ‘Some father!' and I ran out of the room.”

Criticism and self image

Criticism of personality and character gives teenagers negative feelings about themselves. Abusive adjectives attached to personality have a devastating effect. When we call our teenagers “stupid” or “clumsy” or “ugly” there are reactions in their bodies and souls. They react with resentment, anger, and defiance. They may then feel guilty about their hostility and as we heap more criticism on them, they act worse leading to another cycle of criticism, punishment, and revenge. Thus, a cycle of misery is created that makes family life a torture.

Teenagers who are repeatedly made to feel stupid eventually accept such evaluations as fact. They may give up intellectual pursuits, hoping to escape ridicule. Since competition means failure, their safety depends on not trying. In school they never volunteer. They skip tests, avoid homework, and before final exams they get sick. They may forever remain true to a false motto: “If I don't try, I can't fail.” Teenagers who are repeatedly called “clumsy” incorporate this evaluation into their self-image. They may give up sports and other social pursuits in which agility is required. They are convinced that they can never be any good at them.

When Theodore, age sixteen, inadvertently spilled paint on the rug, his parents became enraged.

MOTHER: How many times have I told you to be careful with paint? You always make a mess of things!

FATHER: ( with disgust ): He can't help it. He's sloppy! He always was and always will be!

There is no doubt that the cost of the ridicule far exceeded the cost of the rug. How does one price loss of confidence? Accidents should not trigger insults. It is best to clean up the paint, without smearing the personality.

“The glue spilled, get a rag.”

When Fay, age fifteen, spilled glue on the carpet, mother called out: “Oh, the glue spilled. Get a rag and some water.” Mother helped Fay clean up the mess while saying, “The glue is so messy. It's hard to get it off the carpet.” Fay answered: “I'm sorry, Mom. I should have been more careful.”

Fay's mother dealt effectively with a sticky situation. She didn't attack her daughter. She tackled the problem. Mother was tempted to warn about “next time” but when she saw how grateful her daughter was she restrained herself. In the past, the cry over spilled glue would have spoiled the mood for the entire day.

“What a pleasure, something spills and no one is blamed.”

Father tells this incident:

“We were having lunch. The fourteen-year-old spilled his milk. I kept talking. He jumped up and said, ‘Don't worry, I'll wipe it up' I kept on with my conversation. My son said: ‘What a pleasure, something spilled and no one was blamed.'”

“My first impulse was to scream.”

Another mother says:

“We just came back from a twelve-day vacation with our two teenagers, thirteen and sixteen. One incident that could have marred the trip was smoothed over because of my new knowledge. My sixteen-year-old was wearing her favorite bracelet. On the way to our next stop, she turned to me, pale and upset. The bracelet was missing.

“My first impulse was to scream at her about how careless and stupid she was. Instead, I said, ‘Oh, that's too bad! You may have left it in the hotel. We'll write to them and see if they found it.' She was relieved and grateful. The vacation was not ruined for us.”

Ink and Anger

Another mother relates:

“On returning home I noticed ink stains on a dinette chair and on the sofa. A quick survey revealed the guilty party to by my fourteen-year-old son, still oblivious to the broken pen in his hip pocket.

“Instead of ‘raising the roof,' a response typical for me, I showed him what had happened. Together we cleaned the furniture. This was done with a minimum of criticism. I was surprised and pleased by my calm.

“About an hour later, I went into my bedroom and discovered that the inky party had been there too, leaving permanent stains on the upholstered chair. This really put me to the test, and I can't guarantee what the result would have been if not for a knock on the door. My son came to tell me how much he appreciated my not getting angry. He wanted me to know that he really felt terrible about the accident. His words helped me pass the test once more.”

When things go wrong

Many of us have to learn this lesson: When things go wrong, it is not the right time to tell a teenager anything about his personality or character. When a person is drowning, it is not a good time to teach him to swim, or to ask him questions, or to criticize his performance. It is time to help.

“I know you are not happy to have to bring home such a note.”

The following incident, told by a father of a thirteen-year-old boy, is an example of constructive help in a crisis situation.

“Frank came home with a long note from his teacher. It was far from good. We have had such notes before. Our tirade against him would last for days. There were always occasions to recall the incident and to remind him what a disappointment he was to us.

“This time I looked at him and said: ‘Oh, Frank, you must feel awful to have to bring home such a note.' He agreed sheepishly.

“In the past, I have written many letters apologizing for him. This time I merely stated that I had received the note, and was sure that Frank would do fine in the future. I read the note to my son.

“The following day I had a conference with the principal. When I told Frank about it, he said: ‘Oh, you didn't have to see her. I'm doing better already.'

“My reaction to the note may not solve my son's problem in school, but it has already improved our relationship at home.”

How things go wrong

In many homes, battles between parents and teenagers develop in a regular sequence. The teenager does or says something we dislike. We react with something insulting. He replies with something worse. We come back with threats or punishment. And the free-for-all is under way.

Floyd, age thirteen, entered the living room bouncing a basketball.

MOTHER: Get out of here with that. You'll break something!

FLOYD: No, I won't!

Just then the ball hit a lamp and sent it crashing to the floor.

MOTHER: For crying out loud, you never listen to anything I say. You had to break something, didn't you? You are so stupid sometimes.

FLOYD: You broke the washing machine. What does that make you?

MOTHER: Floyd, you know better than to be rude.

FLOYD: You were rude first. You called me stupid.

MOTHER: I don't want to hear another word from you. Go to your room this minute!

FLOYD: Quit trying to boss me around. I'm not a kid anymore.

MOTHER: To your room this instant!

FLOYD: Go ahead, make me.

At this direct challenge to her authority, mother grabbed her son and started shaking him. While attempting to escape, Floyd pushed his mother. She slipped and fell. Frightened, he ran out of the house and did not return until late in the evening.

A simple incident had swelled to serious proportions. Yet none of it, starting with the verbal fight, need have happened. Such incidents can be handled more wisely. What could mother have done? She might have said: “Please bounce the ball outside.” No further criticism was necessary. Or later, when the lamp was broken, mother could have helped her son dispose of the pieces. A low-keyed comment might have made Floyd feel sorry instead of defiant. If his mother had said, “I will miss that lamp,” and remained calm, he might have concluded for himself that a living room is, after all, not the place for playing ball. As a general rule, cutting comments create hostility. They do not bring about appropriate behavior.

A sense of proportion

A teenager needs to learn from his parents to distinguish between events that are merely unpleasant and annoying and those that are serious and tragic. A minor mishap should not be treated as a major catastrophe. A broken glass is not a broken arm. Spilling glue is not spilling blood. A lost sweater need not lead to a lost temper. A torn shirt does not call for an ugly scene.

Philip, age fourteen, accidentally spilled nails all over the floor. He sheepishly looked up at his father.

PHILIP: Gee, I'm so clumsy!

FATHER: That's not what we say when nails spill.

PHILIP: What do you say?

FATHER: You say, the nails spilled – I'll pick them up!

PHILIP: Just like that?

FATHER: Just like that.

PHILIP: Thanks, Dad.

Father bent down and helped Philip pick up a few nails. Philip looked at his father with sheer admiration. He will long remember the lesson in maturity demonstrated by his father: How to deal kindly and constructively with momentary mishaps. Would he have learned as much if his father had criticized him? Would he have become a better person had his father said: “Now look at what you've done! Can't you be more careful? Must you always be in such a rush? Why is it that whatever you touch ends up on the floor?”

The Main Lesson

The following advice is offered without reservations:

Don't attack personality.

Don't criticize character traits.

Deal with the situation at hand.

Giving personal feedback is like performing surgery: It always hurts and at times it can be fatal. On rare occasions surgery may become necessary, but it is always a last resort, undertaken when there is no other choice. It requires careful preparation by both physician and patient. The doctor must be calm and stead, and the patient willing and ready.

The worst feedback is that which stamps the whole personality with a devastating adjective. Such a label is generally false, inevitably insulting, and always infuriating. As Tolstoy wrote:

One of the most widespread superstitions is that every man has his own special, definite qualities: That a man is kind, cruel, wise, stupid, energetic, apathetic, etc. Men are not like that… men are like rivers… every river narrows here, is more rapid there, here slower, there broader, now clear, now cold, now dull, now warm. It is the same with men. Every man carries in himself the germs of every human quality, and sometimes one manifests itself, sometimes another, and the man often becomes unlike himself, while still remaining the same man.

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