Are You Being Too Critical of Your Kids?

Excess praise is harmful to children, but so is being overly critical. Are you being too critical of your kids?

“What’s the matter with you?”

Last week we were talking about the problem with praise, an issue that psychologist Madeline Levine, Ph.D., explores in her book, The Price of Privilege.

But, Levine points out, if overpraising our children is harmful (because it focuses on achievement instead of effort, makes children reluctant to try new things, and is often used by parents to manipulate their kids into doing what they want them to do), being overly critical of children is even worse.

I know this.

Probably every parent knows it.

But, unfortunately, the knowledge that what we say might harm our children’s self-esteem, does not always keep us from saying things that harm our children’s self-esteem. If you listen to four-year-olds playing together, you can get some insight into just how critical and hurtful parents’ words can be.

Some real-life examples of things I’ve heard parents say to their children (or about their children) that make me sad:

“If you keep eating like that, you’ll have to go to fat girls’ camp.”

“Why can’t [my daughter] straighten her legs? She looks like an asshole.”

“You’re a quitter. Why can’t you ever stick with anything?”

Some real-life examples of things I’ve said to my own children that I really wish I hadn’t:

“Why don’t you just grow up?”

“Why can’t you act your age?”

“Are you doing that on purpose to upset me? Because it’s working and now I’m upset.”

“Sometimes I hate you too.” (Yes, I know. It’s awful. I really did say this. To my son. In the midst of a very bad argument where we were both yelling at each other. And I feel totally ashamed that I said it. And wish I hadn’t. And if you hate me for it and never want to read another word I write, I won’t blame you.)

When we criticize our children we are commenting on the value of the child herself. We are telling her that she is worthless, unworthy of love, unworthy of respect.

Ironically, when we badger a child about something we don’t like in the hopes it will save her from a future problem (“You want to go to fat girls’ camp?” was said by a mom who herself had a weight problem and did not want her daughter to suffer the same fate), we all but insure the child will have a complex about it and will end up with the problem we want to save her from (that daughter has spent her adult life unhappy about being overweight).

Trying to turn your child into a different person to satisfy your own dreams does not work, makes your children feel bad about themselves, and can cause lasting psychological harm. Levine uses the example of a physician dad who does not want to acknowledge that his teen is average-bright, not superior, and who says, “Why in the world would you take physiology instead of AP chemistry? You’re smarter than that.” Ouch.

“Whenever we attack our child’s developing self,” Levine writes in bold in her book, “we feed feelings of self-hatred, perhaps the most dangerous feelings kids can have.”

This is not to say that we can’t express disappointment or disapproval to our children when we don’t like their behavior. It’s our job as parents to guide our children, give them clear expectations, and help them grow into competent, responsible adults. But we need to correct them in a way that criticizes the behavior, not the child.

Instead of saying, “What’s wrong with you?” to my 8-year-old son who is again antagonizing his 2-year-old sister, I could say, “I don’t like it when you tease Leone.” Then I could take his sister into another room, away from him, and play with her, to show him that bad behavior will not get him attention. (Am I the only one with kids like this? Two of my four seem to seek out negative attention. The other two can’t bear a harsh word and rarely, if ever, misbehave. As I told Athena yesterday, if she were my only child, I would fancy myself the best parent in the world.)

Instead of saying, “Why don’t you just grow up?” to my 12-year-old daughter, I could say, “It really annoys me when I have to remind you 15 times to do your chores. Do them the first time I ask you, please. If you can’t manage that, you lose the privilege of checking your email for the day.”

Instead of saying, “Are you doing that on purpose to upset me?” I could go into the garage and hit the heavy bag, take a walk around the block, or do some jumping jacks until I have blown off enough steam to deal with my child in a calmer and more rational manner.

I am very good with all this parenting theory, aren’t I? But it’s so hard to put it into practice. These fights usually come about at moments of stress. I have low blood sugar, a problem with work, or a frustration with James. Maybe I’m angry at myself for not being as productive as I hoped, or for misplacing a document I need, or for not getting lunches made quickly enough. In those moments, it’s hard not to lash out, even though I know it’s wrong.

I think there’s another reason some parents tend to overly criticize their children: The self-hate that Levine says is so dangerous for young people is often present in large amounts in us parents and tends to get passed on from generation to generation.

I have a tendency to ticker tape negative thoughts and call myself an idiot.

I spill something in the kitchen and instead of looking at the mess and thinking, “An opportunity to clean the floor!” I look at the mess and think, “Why am I so stupid and clumsy? I always drop stuff when I’m tired. I’ll never have a clean house. I suck.”

Cheri Huber, a Zen practitioner whose wisdom I really appreciate, suggests breathing through those moments. Be aware of the unkind voices inside your head, notice them, and smile at them. Remember those negative voices are not you, they are what Huber calls your “psychosocial conditioning.” Breath. And then take a rag and wipe up the spill. I love this advice. But it’s so much easier said than done.

Do you think you are overly critical of your children? Is there something about your parenting you would like to change? Do you have suggestions for how to be kinder to yourself? Less critical of your kids?

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Categories: parenting.


  1. Marni Koopman

    I think the important part is apologizing when you have said something that was potentially hurtful and talking about it with your kids!
    Because everyone says the wrong thing sometimes, and the important lesson is how you deal with it.

  2. Dianne

    Though I don’t have kids of my own–I have had parents and they said a lot of stuff that was very damaging. When I was going through a rough patch in my 20s I was reading a lot of Joan Borysenko. She said something that stayed with me about the fact that parents say and do hurtful things sometimes but it’s more detrimental to the child if the parent does not repair the damage by apologizing and taking responsibility for the actions and words.

  3. Codi Spodnik

    Hi Jennifer –

    Thank you so much for sharing this. This is a topic very close to my heart. I have a very critical father and I’ve married a very critical husband. Of course, I would say it is my automatic tendency to be extremely self-critical, so that is something I tried to address in myself before even having children. This is not just a parenting issue, but something that can color all our relationships and friendships. I honestly think that, for the most part, I’ve been fairly successful, but there are a few KEY factors for me and I think you’ve touched on some of them:

    1) FIRST – I have had to acknowledge the difference between judging or convicting the whole person, vs. the specific quality or behavior. There is a big difference between “He is such a jerk” which is really a conviction of the whole character of a person and “I wish he wouldn’t do that” which is specific to a behavior. When you start saying, “He shouldn’t BE THAT WAY” instead of “He must stop doing that” you are really saying, “I know better than this person. This person has less value to me than my own wishes.” Instead, to say “this behavior isn’t working for me, what can we do instead?” engages the other person in the solution and gives them the benefit of the doubt that you are working with a person with enough self-control to actually help find a solution that works for all of you. Of course, I am not really talking about parenting here, but the concept still applies. This is even true about one’s own self-talk. The “I need to do this instead of that” is productive, where the “I’m such an asshole for doing this” convicts my whole character and worth based on one event, circumstance or behavior.

    2) SECOND – It is critically important for me to control my own stressors. This is more complicated than you might think – at least for me. See, for me to set boundaries on my time or activities, I need to first notice that I am more critical and hot-tempered, less self-disciplined when I’m stressed and pressed for time. Next, I need to give myself permission to structure my life in a way that minimizes that. My self-talk says that time spent relaxing isn’t “productive” and I don’t “deserve” to have time that isn’t productive. It is a conscious effort for me to schedule my life in such a way that allows ample time to keep my house organized, to prepare for the activities of the next day, to gather my thoughts before a meeting, to get to the school in time to pick up my kids, etc. When I am multi-tasking, juggling a work-related phone conversation while picking up my kids from school, I am much more likely to be irritable, much less present for them. When I rush them, they misbehave and resist and if it’s going to make me late for work, that’s when I lose it.

    It is so important for me to remember that I must avoid getting us in a pinch like that. Even if it means that I am a little late for work. Even if it means saying “no” to an assignment or a social opportunity. If I have a deadline that I MUST meet, then I also MUST set up enough slack in my domestic life that I don’t have to abuse, neglect or scream my head off at my children in order to meet it. That might mean that I say “no” to other things, even work-related things, during the deadline window. It means I have to be a better planner. It might mean that my friend takes me kids on a few well-timed play-dates or that I stay up all night one weekend. Whatever it takes – I have to prioritize. Because there are a variety of ways that a deadline can be met – but my kids only have ONE mommy. (They have a daddy, too, but he works out of state most of time time, so really, the parenting and role model burden is largely on me. And….even though I have a lot of balls in the air, this is one I must not drop.)

    3) THIRD – Forgiveness is also a huge factor. This is related to both the above points. When I blow it, I do apologize to my kids. I explain exactly why I did what I did and I tell them how it was wrong and what I should’ve done instead – and I expect them to do the same when they blow it – and we forgive each other. I have to be able to forgive myself and I am grateful that I believe in a spirituality that allows for me to be forgiven. I try to let go of the mistakes of yesterday and not worry about the mistakes of tomorrow, but…..I am a project manager and an event planner after all, so my motto is to prepare for the worst….hope for the best….and wing it when tomorrow get here. Isn’t that all we CAN do?

    Thanks again for opening up this topic, Jennifer! ~ Codi

  4. I think we can all be over critical and finding that right balance is hard. Still, we are all human. We’re going to say things and do things to our children that we will regret. I had a friend once tell me, after describing the mental abuse her father put her through as a child, that most loving parents do the “best they know how,” which is different from “the best that they can.” I think accepting that we all do the best we know how and letting our children know we love them is the most important thing we can do.

  5. I wasn’t critical of my kids because we lived in France, where parents tend to be very critical. The teachers were critical, so I felt I was out to counter-balance that and provide as much positive reenforcement as possible. I think you are right about stress. When I was under extreme stress, I acted in ways I regret with my kids, slapping one ONCE and spanking the other ONCE. Parenting well is so hard!

  6. Fran

    I have a mother who is like this. I’m a college student living with her, and now, I’m at a point where I know this whole thing is pointless. I can’t move out because I have no job, which makes me often depressed on a daily basis. Sometimes being with her sucks the life out of me.

    She’s so critical of everything, and I find myself now being more defensive than I ever been. I tried to make her happy by having a major that will be worth the investment and promising to get a great job and all to financially support her, but it’s like that doesn’t even matter. As a child you see that your parents are perfect even when they are critical, but now, as an adult, I see her imperfections and I make sure I point them out whenever she tries to criticize me.

    It’s wrong, but with her, I have my guard up. I can never tell her private things children are suppose to tell their parents. My brother is the same way, and now he never talks to anyone in the house. She has to go above and beyond to know what he is doing. Most of the times, she talks about how it’s hard to figure him out, especially since he was such a cheery kid in the beginning. I don’t have a grudge, I’m just being straightforward.

    How can you even have a normal conversation with someone who finds every opportunity to nitpick on what you do? How can you even relax around them after going to school or work? I defnitely forgive her, but as for opening myself to her, no way. That’s over with.

  7. Hope

    Thank you for sharing this. I, like so many, am an adult child of overly-critical parents (particularly the women in my life), and subsequently am an overly-critical parent myself. I’ve desperately needed encouragement and insight on where to go from here. Thank you.

  8. I’m in tears reading these comments.. I don’t want to hit my forties, sixties, seventies still being in tears whenever my mother is around. I also desperately don’t want to be like her when I’m a mother.. At 25 those years may be just around the corner. I try to guard myself and my heart and from adopting the traits my mother displays to me. Please help. Every conversation with her turns into an argument or her insulting me about my hair, weight, clothes. I am desperately trying not to become the critical person that she is, as much as I love her and admire other qualities about her. Her criticisms hurt the most. Ironically enough, my dad is experiencing something similar with his mom (my grandma) that led to them no longer speaking. I don’t want to ever NOT have a relationship with my mother, but her attitude towards me gets exhausting. I’ve been suicidal & self-mutilating in my teens because of girls who bullied me & spread rumors in high school; I lived through the years of that only by God’s grace & love but at 25 it doesn’t help that my mother is now the “bully”. Everytime I try to tell her how her comments and words hurt me, SHE gets angry and starts shouting & screaming at me. You can almost see the steam coming out her ears, like in those cartoons. I work at the company that my mom is CEO of, for a summer job and (which extended into me working there after I finished college, because the company wanted me to stay to fill a position). At work she criticizes me and says “I’m not your mother here I’m your boss” but funny enough her words to me at home don’t differ much when she’s “mother”. I’ve prayed for months on end for a new job and I’m currently in the transition out of this job (thank god) into a new one in an industry I love; advertising. My mom recently made a statement about my hair and I ended up changing hairstyles just so she’d stop taunting me, and today, in my last week before y new job, she’s going off about my NEW hairstyle; she said “finally” when I first did it n now she hates it. I am tired & frustrated. I’m an only child, and a young girl who just wants a relationship with her mother (I grew up with my mom alone), but she makes it very painful to be around her. I tell her of my successes, she forgets. I tell her about things going on in my life, she either forgets or says I’m being too sensitive. She doesn’t even remember the name of the company I got the new job with 3 wks ago. I’m afraid she’ll never get it or change. I don’t know what to do next because I don’t want to go down the road of totally removing her from my life.

  9. Angie

    Thank you for this story and thank you all for sharing your comments. Talisa, your story brought tears to my eyes. I hope you resolve things with your mum and can have a fullfilling relationship with her.
    I really aprpeciate the comment about how we reflect our self-loathing onto our children. So sad but true. I am going to work harder to be a better and less critical mum to my beautiful 3.5 year old boy.
    Good luck to all of you with your journeys.

  10. daryl

    Talisa, my advice – find a job and get some space away from your mum, my opinion it is the only way she will learn to treat you as her daughter ( not an employee ). Live your life girl, find a man, get happy and have them kids…

    If mum is too busy to yelling to be part of your happy life, you need to understand that is her choice… leave the door open for her, but dont wait for her to change because chances are she isnt going to – and there is no reason to waste the best years of your life waiting for her.

    I wasted mine, waiting for my mum… she never changed.


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