Discipline or Criticism?

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak

mom yelling at kid

Jenna was crying when her mom found her.  “What’s the matter, honey?”  She looked up through her tears, “Daddy said that I was stupid.”  Ken, Jenna’s dad, walked in the room just then, “No, I did not. She wasn’t paying attention when I was trying to help her with her math homework and when she made the same mistake I just corrected her for, I told her not to be so stupid. She just needs to pay attention, that’s all.”  Every parent gets frustrated from time to time. Children ignore directions, forget rules, become distracted, and outright disobey on a fairly regular basis. But the case of Ken and Jenna raises an interesting question.  What is the difference between discipline and just plain criticism?     Let’s take a look at the following four ways to know whether we are addressing our frustration with our kids, or just taking it out on them.

 1. Discipline teaches. Criticism Tears Down.

Discipline comes from the Latin word for “student.” As such, discipline is always primarily concerned with teaching a child what to do differently, instead of merely lecturing them about what to stop doing. Unlike discipline, which gives a child helpful information he or she can use to improve his or her behavior, criticism is primarily intended to make the child ashamed of himself.  For example, if you ask your son, Joey to get you a can of corn from the pantry, and he brings you a can of yams, clearly he was not paying attention. Here are two responses you could make:

~Criticism:     (Roll your eyes. Look at child as if he is an imbecile)

“What is wrong with you? Don’t you ever listen? I said corn! I wish you’d pay attention for once in your life.”     (Child slinks off.)

~Discipline: (Take Joey’s chin gently in your hand. Make good eye contact.)

“Joey, I asked you for corn. Please say, “’I’m sorry for not listening, Mom. I’ll go get the corn now.’”

(Joey) “I’m sorry for not listening, mom.”

(You) “AND?”

(Joey) “I’ll go get the corn now.”

(You) “Good, now please, hurry up.”

See the difference? Discipline not only sent Joey to get the corn, it also taught him how to respond when he didn’t listen properly (i.e., by apologizing respectfully and offering, verbally and behaviorally, to correct his mistake). Further, the mother in the discipline example didn’t undermine her own dignity by insulting the child or losing her cool. She was firm, focused, and directive.

2. Discipline is behavioral.  Criticism is personal.

Generally speaking, discipline addresses behavior, while criticism dresses down  the person displaying the behavior. For example: Sandra’s room currently meets the criteria to be a federally registered disaster area. Her dad, Tom, wants her to clean it up.

Criticism: “You live like a pig! Don’t you take care of anything? I want this place cleaned up.”

Discipline: “This room is a mess. You have the next 30 minutes to get it in order or no TV tonight. Do you understand, Miss?”

“Yes dad.”

“Good.     See that it’s done.”

Notice that in both cases, dad is frustrated. But in the criticism example, dad is taking that frustration out on Sandy. He may not mean it, but when dad walks away, all she is thinking is, “Dad says I’m a pig. That is SO unfair. I think HE’S a JERK.”     Sandra isn’t thinking about how she needs to change her behavior. She is simply fantasizing about the day she gets to move out of the house and make whatever messes she wants to. In the meantime, she’ll probably stall, taking the rest of the night to “clean her room” (mostly by staring at it poutingly) with the express purpose of annoying her father.

By contrast, the discipline example focuses dad’s frustration on the room, not the child. Tom’s direction is clear and firm.     Sandra still won’t like having to clean her room, but she can’t blame her frustration on dad “calling me names.” She knows dad’s expectation, and she knows the consequence for not meeting it. She’ll still be grumpy, but she’ll too busy for the next half hour trying to salvage her TV privileges to waste any time plotting her passive revenge.

3. Discipline is Focused. Criticism is Broad and General.

While criticism makes sweeping statements about the child, the child’s character,  or his temperament, discipline is concerned with correcting a specific offense in a specific moment in time.     Billy forgot to take out the trash.     Mom is less than happy to find him playing videogames instead.

Criticism: “All you ever do is play those stupid games. I am so sick of your irresponsibility and selfishness.”

Discipline: (Mom places herself between Billy and the TV screen) “Billy.”

“Mom, I can’t see!”

“Billy what did I ask you to do?”

“Uh…. Oh. Take out the trash?”

“Go. Now. No more videogames for the rest of the night.”

“But MOM!”

(Eyebrows raised.) “Excuse me?”

“Yes, mom.”

In the criticism example, Billy may or may not get up to get the trash. More likely, figuring that Mom is already mad at him so what does he have to lose, he will attempt to argue that she should let him finish his game. At this point, she will either hit the roof, in which case she undermines her dignity and further loses her child’s respect, or she throws up her hands in powerless disgust–and loses her child’s respect. Even if he takes out the trash, she still feels like an ineffective parent, and she will probably spend the rest of the night wondering “What kind of kid am I raising?”  On the other hand, the discipline mom doesn’t worry about what kind of kid she’s raising. She knows that she has what it takes to see that he gets the guidance he needs, when he needs it. In her actions, the misbehavior is addressed. The consequence is firm. The disrespect is dismissed, and the offense is corrected. End of story.

4. Discipline builds rapport. Criticism builds estrangement.

The bible tells us, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. But later  on, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace.”  When I say that discipline builds rapport, I do not mean to imply that little Johnny will throw his arms about you and say, “Thank you! Thank you for showing me how to be a responsible, productive citizen! I love you so much, oh wise and wonderful parent!” But when you are able to stay focused on the behavior, give positive directions for correcting problems, and do it in a way that does not demean the child, your son or daughter will come to see you as a fair minded and good person. Your child will respect you, and when your child needs advice, direction, or counsel, he or she will seek it from you.  By contrast, use too much criticism, and your child will become withdrawn and alienated from you. As scripture says, “…do not nag your children, lest they lose heart.”     Criticism is easy. Too easy. And so we all give into it at one point or another. It is one of those offences that just doesn’t seem all that serious at the time. What’s one little word or phrase?

But one little word or phrase, repeated a million times over the course of 18 years of a child’s life makes a deep impression, and ultimately, it leads to a parent who asks, “Why won’t my son/daughter talk to me anymore?”  St. John Bosco addressed this when he wrote, “When the pupil is convinced that his superiors have high hopes for him, he is drawn back again to the practice of virtue. A kind word or a glance does more to encourage a child than a severe reprimand, which only serves to dampen youthful enthusiasm.”  Make discipline your goal, and reap “the harvest of righteousness and peace” in the form of better obedience, a clearer parental conscience, and a closer relationship with your children. For more parenting tips, check out Parenting with Grace: Catholic Parent’s ® Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids (2nd Ed.)

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