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Take a Closer Look

When we register a complaint with our kids — certainly a familiar moment for all parents — we want them to receive our words with an open mind. Instead of defensiveness, we want them to be willing to think about what we’re saying. That’s not easy for any of us on the receiving end of criticism, whether parent or child. How can our kids best learn to receive criticism? The example we set when they criticize us might be their greatest teacher (see Receiving Criticism). Here’s what’s important:

Check Your Defensiveness

The mother in Valuing Their Words initially reacts rather than responds: she quickly becomes defensive, pushing back against her son’s complaint about how hard it is to get her attention (see Don’t React — Respond and Distracted Parenting). Fortunately, she slows herself down enough to push past her defensiveness.

Acknowledge Feelings & Perspective

Using empathic listening, mom comments on her son’s upset, and in that moment realizes that this is an important issue for him (see Trusting Emotions). She also repeats his words back to him about it being difficult to get her attention. He now knows that she really is listening.

Mom’s tone tells us she’s not ready to accept what she’s hearing as absolute truth, and that’s okay. Her agreement isn’t important in that moment. What is important is that her son feels heard by her, even if she’s not ready to agree with him. 

Value The Feedback

Unlike the father in Receiving Their Criticism, this mother needs time to consider her son’s complaint. She models emotional honesty when she says, “It’s not easy for me to hear this kind of complaint.” Nevertheless, she does something very important: she honors the boy by saying she will give careful consideration to what he’s telling her. In other words, we don’t have to agree with our kids or like the sound of what they’re telling us to appreciate their courage to speak up and offer us feedback. “I’m glad that you’re bringing it up, so thank you,” mom says. This lets him know that his ideas are worthy of her consideration. A message like this promotes his confidence and self-esteem.

Many parents believe that when their kids criticize them, it’s a sign of disrespect and a challenge to parental authority. This, in part, may reflect cultural traditions and practices. Some families value more hierarchical relationships between parents and children while other families value a more egalitarian approach. Valuing Their Words reflects the latter orientation and a belief in the psychological benefits when children are able to express (rather than suppress) their emotions. Of course, how children express (assert) themselves is important. Respectful assertiveness does not include aggressive language, hurtful words, an unkind or dismissive tone. Children can demonstrate respect for elders and at the same time express their needs, wants and feelings. Valuing Their Words illustrates how parents can encourage the development of this valuable life skill at home.

Watch the video without narration

Talking to Kids You Love is written and created by Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., in collaboration with Marina Eovaldi, Ph.D., and Benjamin Rosen, Ph.D. The project is made possible by a generous grant from The Golub Family Foundation.