THE BLOG
05/24/2013 02:48 pm ET | Updated Jul 24, 2013

How to Avoid the Most Common Parenting Mistake

Last week, I discussed the problem of frequent criticism in families. In my experience, this is the most common cause of unhappiness in parent-child relationships -- and of unhealthy outcomes for children.

When parents are often critical of their children, children, in turn, become angry and argumentative, stubborn and defiant. When we argue frequently with our children, children become good at arguing.

Of course, there is a paradox. We know that criticism is hurtful and that harsh or persistent criticism damages our relationships with our children. For all of us, however, the ability to accept and learn from criticism is a hallmark of emotional maturity.

What can we do? How can we avoid frequent criticism and still provide children with the guidance and instruction they need? Here are some recommendations that have been helpful to many families.

• Set aside time, every day, to listen to your child's concerns.

There is no better alternative to frequent criticism and argument than patient and respectful listening. Listening does not mean agreement or giving in to unreasonable demands. When we listen, we make a genuine effort to understand and appreciate our child's point of view and to acknowledge what is right about what he is saying before we tell him what is wrong.

When we are angry or critical of our children, it is almost always because we have lost patience with them. But we cannot listen patiently -- or listen well -- when we are tired or hurried; when we are burdened or preoccupied; when we are trying to get things done; or when, at that moment, we are just too angry. Our children, in healthy development, should come to understand this.

I therefore recommend that parents regularly create moments that are conducive to patient listening, to set aside 10 minutes at bedtime as a time to talk. In these brief daily conversations, we should encourage kids to talk about whatever they were upset or angry about during the day, to say what they liked or didn't like, or what they may be anxious about the following day. When they have nothing to talk about, we can talk about the events of our day, perhaps share a moment of frustration or a moment of humor.

Children look forward to these moments, just as they do opportunities for play. It is surprising, then, how infrequently we make this a regular part of a child's day. Often, when parents set aside time to listen and talk with their children, they report immediate improvement in their child's mood and behavior.

• Repair moments of anger and misunderstanding.

In every family, especially when we are anxious or frustrated, parents will become critical and may say hurtful things to their children. At these times, it is important for us to take the lead, acknowledge our errors and apologize to our children. We should say, for example, "I feel bad that you were so upset earlier today. I know I was very angry at you. Maybe I got too angry."

Some parents express concern that, in apologizing to their children, they may implicitly condone disrespectful or defiant behavior and diminish their authority as parents. This fear is understandable, but unfounded. When a parent offers an apology, he has modeled an important lesson in interpersonal relationships and gains authority with his child, because our children's acceptance of adult authority is, ultimately, based on respect.

• When you need to criticize, criticize thoughtfully and gently. Children make mistakes. So do we.

Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance, offers these additional recommendations for offering criticism to young athletes, what Thompson calls "kid-friendly criticism":

• Always criticize in private. Criticism in front of others causes embarrassment and is likely to make children angry, defensive, and stubborn.

• Children do not respond well to criticism if we criticize when we are angry.

• It is often helpful to "ask permission" when we offer criticism. We can say, for example, "Is it OK if I give you some advice about how you were playing today?" or "Are you open to hearing some criticism about how you played in today's game?" When introduced in this way, children will be much more receptive to what we have to say. Usually, they will say that they are ready to listen. If they say, "No," we should accept this and tell them, "OK. Maybe we can talk about it later" or "Let me know if you change your mind."

Thompson's recommendations are helpful and important, not only when children are playing sports, but for all activities they are involved in and for our daily family lives.

• Express appreciation. Criticism, although necessary in small doses, is a toxin. Appreciation is the antidote.

Appreciate every effort on the part of your child at cooperation and concern for others. Simple, genuine expressions of appreciation are often remarkably helpful in softening a child's intransigence and opening her to collaboration in solving problems.

• Give Them Time.

In talking with children about any difficult problem, do not insist on an immediate response. Even minor criticisms evoke defensiveness in most children; a defensive wall quickly comes up. When you bring up a problem, place the problem before your child, ask her to think about it, and then plan a discussion for the following day. You can always end with, "Let's talk about this again tomorrow."

These alternatives and antidotes to frequent criticism often begin to turn around vicious cycles of unhealthy family interactions. But they may not be enough. Our next step is to engage children in the process of solving problems. In my next post, I will discuss how we can do this and offer guidelines for solving some of the most common, yet challenging, problems of daily family life.