Why you should not criticize children

For centuries, people have searched for the formula that will provide the magic wand in parenting. How do you mold well-behaved children? How do you place them on a guaranteed path to success? These are tough questions.

Evidence from science, however, is beginning to shine the light on the answers to these questions – some of which have long been discovered by religion; so right now, what science is doing is validation.

Accordingly, let’s consider this question from three perspectives: science, reality and religion – for all are united in teaching us the perils of one go-to tool parents and teachers use in raising children: criticism.

Let’s start with science.

B. F. Skinner’s early 20th Century studies showed that to modify behaviour, to get an animal to behave well, reward is a better tool than punishment.

Commenting on Skinner’s research in his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” Dale Carnegie, wrote:

“B.F. Skinner, the world-famous psychologist, proved through his experiments that an animal rewarded for good behavior will learn much more rapidly and retain what it learns far more effectively than an animal punished for bad behavior.”

These words in particular are instructive: “an animal rewarded for good behavior will learn much more rapidly and retain what it learns far more effectively than an animal punished for bad behavior.”

Remember children are animals too – only better animals: with feelings and prides that can be hurt.

But how often do we lose our heads as teachers and parents when we try to get children to learn?

Well, from Skinner’s studies, now you know that it is better you find something to praise (within reason) from the child’s effort than something to criticize.

Another great psychologist, Hans Selye, agreed with Skinner’s sentiments:

“As much as we thirst for approval, we dread condemnation.”

Further, Richard Wiseman, reported in his book “59 Seconds” some studies on the soft approach versus the adoption of threats when trying to get children to do something.

“Jonathan Freedman from Stanford University conducted an experiment on this issue.

His study involved a group of about forty boys, between seven and ten years of age, who were attending one of two local schools in California,” Wiseman reported.

One after the other, the children were called into a room to rate each of the five toys presented to them – from 0 (“very, very bad toy”) to 100 (“very, very good toy”).

Four of the toys we’re not that impressive: a plastic submarine, a baseball glove, a toy tractor and a toy rifle. The fifth however, was the ultimate toy of that time: a battery-powered robot; which was quite exciting for boys in the 1960s.

After each boy completed the ratings, the experimenter told him he had to run an errand but the boy was free to play with the four toys but not to touch the robot.

Half of the boys were told that bad things would happen to them if they touched the robot (“If you play with the robot, I’ll be very angry and will have to do something about it.) While other half were treated to a “softly softly” approach. They were simply told “do not play with the robot. It is wrong to play with the robot.”

Which group of boys do you think disobeyed the instruction? Out of the 40 boys, all of them played with the forbidden robot except two: one from the threat group and one from the “softly softly” group.

But the researchers were not interested in the short term effect of the experiment. Therefore, after six weeks, they returned to the same schools to work with the same boys. This time, it was a female experimenter that was sent and the children were asked to make a drawing after which the lady excused herself but told the boys that while she was gone, they could play with any of the five toys – including the robot.

This time, there was a huge difference between the two groups. While among the boys that received stern instructions in the first experiment, 77% played with the robot, only 33% of the “softly, softly” group played with the robot.

What does this mean?

“Threats work well in the short term but can actually prove counterproductive over longer periods of time,” Richard Wiseman said. ”By pointing out all of the terrible things that will happen if your child follows a course of action, you may be making that activity more attractive in their minds. Instead, try the “softly, softly” approach”

That is what science says.

What does religion say about this?

Does religion encourage us to be harsh, to criticize or to threaten children?

Let us give example of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). He had a number of children around him. How did he treat them?

One of those children around the Prophet said that there was a time that the Prophet sent him on an errand and like many children, he abandoned what he was asked to do and instead, started playing.

So the Prophet came to him and asked:” have you done what we asked you to do?”

One of the children said throughout his time with the Prophet, he never used one harsh word against him.

Accordingly, www.IslamQA.info wrote in reply to a question:

”Because children love kind parents, this love gives them a strong motivation to obey their parents. In the opposite scenario, if kindness is absent and there is violence and harshness, that will lead to alienation, which in turn will lead to stubbornness and disobedience, or the prevalence of fear which will generate an attitude of lying and deceitfulness in the child.”

What about reality?

I know that personally, like many human beings including children, I respond more to kind words than harsh ones. You will not get compliance from me if you use threats.

So what should you do when your child misbehaves?

There is one important thing to do and that is to teach your children self-control or patience. Self-control has been correlated with success in school and at work.

How do you teach self-control?

Psychologists have come up with some few strategies. Richard Wiseman, in his book cited above, listed some:

“There are several other techniques that can help children understand, value, and develop the power of self-discipline. Have them write their name with their nondominant hand, repeat the months of the year or days of the week in reverse order, or name as many objects in a certain category (e.g., vegetables, pets, countries) as they can in thirty seconds. Also, when you see your child concentrating very hard on something, encourage them to reflect on their behavior by, for example, asking them how long they thought they’d been concentrating (point out that time flies when you are focused) or how it felt when someone interrupted them (point out the value of being able to get back into a task after someone interrupts you).”

My boss also told me one strategy that his father used with him that was very effective.

”Whenever he received report that I behaved badly,” my boss said,” he would invite me to eat with him; during which he would tell me the story of a certain boy who behaved badly and the consequences that he suffered. Because I knew he was referring to me, I never wanted to disappoint again – at least as far as that infraction was concerned.”

Or what my own father did. Instead of eating with me, he would open a book and asked me to read what was relevant to my behavior at that time. ”Read,” he would say, “you can read, so read it.” Thereafter, we discussed the content.

May God help our children to be of benefit to themselves and the society.

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