How to Stop Your Child Being So Self-Critical

In building self-esteem, a child’s criticism of his or her own actions is acceptable. Criticism of “self” is not.

Watch your child’s responses when he or she experi­ences failure. These actions will tell you a lot about your child’s level of self-esteem.

“I’m just a dummy,” said Kevin after he lost five successive games of tick-tack-toe. “Dummy, dummy, dummy.”

Kevin learned those negative responses from some­one, somewhere, at some time. The sadder implication, however, is that Kevin has started equating his perfor­mance in one area of life with his value as a human being. He was not only criticizing his performance, he was criticizing himself. At that point a parent or other caring adult needs to step in.

A few months ago, I witnessed a phenomenal event. I saw Rob swing and miss at forty-eight consecutive pitches from an automatic ball-pitcher at the local bat­ting range. Several friends and a couple of adults stood nearby offering encouragement, advice, cheers when he came close, and dismay when he missed by a mile. Eleven-year-old Rob had lots of witnesses for his forty­- eight swings. Six rounds at twenty-five cents each and not one hit! Not even a foul ball.

He didn’t seem remotely concerned. “Tough deal,” I said as he walked out of the cage.

“Yeah,” he said as he sat down beside me. “I’ve been trying for two years to hit one. I can hit the Softball pitches,” he added matter-of-factly. “And I can hit about half the slow-speed pitches. But I haven’t got any of the medium-speed ones, yet.”

Two years. I couldn’t get over the fact that Rob had tried and failed for two years to hit a medium-speed pitch. He must have swung at several thousand balls hurled at him from that unseen machine. Furthermore, he displayed no intent to give up. Everything about his attitude said he’d be at that range every weekend until he mastered the medium-pitch.

I was equally impressed with the fact that Rob could be so matter-of-fact about his failure. He certainly didn’t consider himself “stupid” or “dumb” for missing those pitches—not even in the presence of friends and family.

“But, children do make mistakes,” you may say. “They do perform badly. Isn’t it wrong to ignore er­rors?”

Yes, children fail. In fact, they often fail at a task many more times than they succeed. A child’s failures at certain tasks, however, do not mean that the child is a failure as a child!

What are some positive responses that an adult can make when a child acknowledges failure?

“Did you hear me miss that chord?” said Rachel after a single flub in an otherwise flawless piano recital per­formance. “I really blew it.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “You blew four out of 1,302 notes. Pretty good percentage, I’d say.” Rachel might not even know what “percentage” means, and I wasn’t cer­tain there were 1,302 notes of music in the piece she played. The point was, we both knew she failed at one small part of one task, and that it was incidental to her personal worth.

“I couldn’t hit the side of a barn today,” said Jeff after being removed from the pitcher’s mound in the sixth inning. “A small barn or a big barn?” I asked. He grinned. We both knew he had experienced an off day, yet we wouldn’t let this setback diminish his self-image.

Sure, kids err. They can and should acknowledge their mistakes, but we must make certain they keep their self-criticism limited to the realm of actions, not of self.

When adults allow children to criticize themselves they think, You agree with me. I must really be stupid. I must really be a dummy. Allowing your child to transfer an unsuccessful performance into a negative sense of self-worth prompts the thought, You think my worth as a person is tied up in my ability to perform well.”

Both conclusions can destroy self-esteem, if they go uncorrected. No child should be allowed to criticize who he or she is, and never should a child be allowed to equate mistakes or failure to self-worth.

Filed Under: Family & Relationships


About the Author: Roberta Southworth is a psychiatrist by profession. She likes to help out people by writing informative tips on how people can to solve their family and relationship issues. She is currently staying in Ireland. She has 5 years of couple counseling experience.

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