My five-year-old granddaughter visited recently and at one point she got quite upset over the idea that she was being criticized. We were shocked that she would think that, as her grandmother and I did not believe we were doing anything of the sort. We think she’s perfect!
But when we thought about it, it was clear that Annabel might well have felt criticized – or made fun of – by what we had been saying. For one thing, I have a tendency to tease her a bit trying to make contact.
I don’t remember what I said that set her off, but it might have been something like this: “Oh, Annabel, I can’t believe how fast you work. Five minutes after you get here, the living room floor is covered with your toys.”
This is said with a smile and a laugh, and I felt genuinely amused, but Annabel experienced it as criticism. Understandably.
The other mistake I make is to talk about her in the third person, as if she weren’t there. “Isn’t she cute?” “Look at how she does that.” “She has so much energy.”
No one likes being talked about as if they were not there. Kids are no different.
Remarks about a child’s clothing are also common, and usually experienced as critical. My daughter once gave me a birthday card in which she thanked me for some of the things I had done while she was growing up. One sentence thanked me for “never, ever, commenting on what I wore.”
Even when we try to be as neutral as possible, kids can hear criticism. My son was born with learning disabilities, initially diagnosed as a mild case of cerebral palsy. His small motor coordination was poor, and he had a very hard time doing some things, like tying his shoes.
With the help of a child psychologist I worked with him every morning to teach him to tie his shoes. I would tell him what to do and when he made a mistake, I would say things like, “No, Dan, the next step is to put that lace over here.”
We did that for two weeks and there was no progress. He would get so far and get frustrated and quit. The psychologist then suggested a different way to handle it.
“Let Dan start to tie his shoes while you watch, silently, and when he gets frustrated and quits, say “Good work, Dan” while you finish the job.”
Three days of this new technique and Dan was tying his shoes by himself. What I thought had been technical advice Dan experienced as criticism, and it upset him too much to go on.
Dan could not articulate that he felt criticized and that’s common for kids. They are often unclear as to what’s going on, and if they are clear and speak up, they are usually punished for doing so. Basically we tell them, however politely, that they are wrong to feel the way they do.
Kathy and I started to do that when Annabel complained. “We’re not making fun of you, Annabel,” we said, giving her the message that she was not understanding what was going on. She felt there must be something wrong with her. This just made her feel worse.
Fortunately, we saw this and stopped ourselves. We then told her that it was understandable she felt as if we were laughing at her based on what we said and how we said it, and we were sorry. But in fact we did not mean to laugh at her and we do our best to stop teasing her. We then encouraged her to tell us whenever we said something that upset her.
We added that we were trying to laugh with her, not at her, a concept she did not fully understand, but we think it helped to have an explanation that explained our laughter.
I discussed the situation with my daughter, who said she had similar experiences with Annabel and thought she was unusually sensitive. I don’t think so. I think Terri has done such a good job of making Annabel feel safe that, unlike most kids, Annabel is not afraid to speak up. Terri does not tell her that she is wrong or shouldn’t feel a particular way. Terri listens and tries to work it out.
It is impossible for us not to give hurtful messages to our kids, no matter how hard we try not to. The best we can do is give them permission to tell us what’s wrong, and try to fix it.