Responding to Kids with Compassion Instead of Criticism

by , M. Ed., Priceless Parenting (sign up for monthly parenting newsletter and receive 20+ printable charts for kids and parents)

criticism versus compassion

Imagine a world where every time you made a mistake or struggled with a task, someone pointed it out to you. How would that make you feel? For many children, this is their reality. It’s all too easy to fall into the habit of criticizing your children's behavior. But have you ever stopped to consider how your words may be affecting your child's self-esteem and motivation?

Parenting is a challenging journey, and it's common for parents to use criticism to correct children's behavior. Phrases like "Stop whining!" "You're being too loud." "Hurry up!" and "Why can't you be more careful?" are often heard in households around the world. However, these seemingly harmless comments can have a significant negative impact on a child's emotional well-being.

When you criticize your kids, you are trying to correct their behavior or prevent them from making mistakes. While these are worthwhile goals, is there a way to handle it that promotes a more positive and nurturing environment for your child? Yes! By using alternative approaches rather than criticism, you can help your children thrive.

Criticizing Kids Teaches Them to Be Self-Critical

A big problem with criticism is that kids tend to quickly internalize it and then repeat it back to themselves. When your kids use negative self-talk, they hold themselves back instead of confidently moving forward.

In her book Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, Professor Kristin Neff writes “When mothers or fathers use harsh criticism as a means to keep their kids out of trouble (“don’t be so stupid or you’ll get run over by a car”), or to improve their behavior (“you’ll never get into college if you keep getting such pathetic grades”), children assume that criticism is a useful and necessary motivational tool. Unsurprisingly, research shows that individuals who grow up with highly critical parents in childhood are much more likely to be critical toward themselves as adults.

People deeply internalize their parents’ criticisms, meaning that the disparaging running commentary they hear inside their own head is often a reflection of parental voices - sometimes passed down and replicated throughout generations.

Did your parents criticize you when you were growing up? If so, you are likely to do the same thing to your kids unless you make an effort to change your default reaction. Being self-critical isn’t what you want to pass on to your kids!

Criticism Comes Easier Than Forgiveness or Compassion

Being critical of your children’s behavior stems from a belief that criticism is necessary in helping them grow up well. When you criticize your kids, you are attempting to exert control over their behavior to improve it. Is there a better way to do this?

Professor Kelly McGonigal’s research on willpower has found that forgiveness and compassion are more powerful than criticism. In her book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It, McGonigal explains “As soon as I mention self-forgiveness in class, the arguments start pouring in. You would think I had just suggested that the secret to more willpower was throwing kittens in front of speeding buses. ‘If I’m not hard on myself, I’ll never get anything done.’ ‘If I forgive myself, I’ll just do it again.’ ‘My problem isn’t that I’m too hard on myself - my problem is that I’m not self-critical enough!’ To many people, self-forgiveness sounds like excuse-making that will only lead to greater self-indulgence.

According to McGonigal, "Researchers have found that taking a self-compassionate point of view on a personal failure makes people more likely to take personal responsibility for the failure than when they take a self-critical point of view. They also are more willing to receive feedback and advice from others, and more likely to learn from the experience.”

Let’s consider a couple situations and compare responding with criticism to responding with compassion.

Suppose your child comes home with a poor math grade, how might you respond?
  • Criticism: "That's a terrible grade! You’re not trying hard enough. How will you get anywhere in life if you can’t do better than that?”
  • Compassion: “Oh, that’s not the grade you wanted. What’s your plan for improving it?”
What if your child spills a glass of juice?
  • Criticism: “Look at the mess you’ve made! You need to be more careful!”
  • Compassion: “Oops! Let’s get a rag and clean it up.”
If you were the child in these situations, how would each response make you feel?

Compassion Towards Your Kids Begins with Compassion Towards Yourself

If you want to be more compassionate and forgiving towards your children, start with how you treat yourself. One mom said she realizes that when she is being compassionate with herself, it is much easier for her to also be compassionate with her son. When she is critical of herself, she is also more likely to be critical of him.

Neff explains why compassion is more effective than criticism, “So why is self-compassion a more effective motivator than self-criticism? Because its driving force is love not fear. Love allows us to feel confident and secure (in part by pumping up our oxytocin), while fear makes us feel insecure and jittery (sending our amygdala into overdrive and flooding our systems with cortisol). When we trust ourselves to be understanding and compassionate when we fail, we won’t cause ourselves unnecessary stress and anxiety.”

How can you be more compassionate with yourself? Tara Brach's RAIN practice is a mindfulness tool that can be helpful for self-compassion. RAIN stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture. It is a useful tool for giving yourself support and kindness.

Here's how you can use the RAIN practice:

Recognize: Start by recognizing when you are being self-critical or hard on yourself. Take a moment to pause and acknowledge what you are experiencing.

Allow: Next, allow the experience to be there without trying to change it. Give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you are feeling without judgment or resistance.

Investigate: Investigate the thoughts and beliefs that are contributing to your self-criticism. Ask questions like, "What am I believing about myself right now?" or "What is the story I am telling myself?"

Nurture: Finally, nurture yourself with kindness and compassion. Offer yourself words of support and encouragement, like "It's okay to make mistakes" or "I am doing the best I can."

By using the RAIN practice, you will have more self-compassion. This will lead you to being more compassionate and supportive with your children as well. Your self-compassion will bring out your best for yourself and your kids!

About Kathy Slattengren

Kathy Slattengren

Parenting expert Kathy Slattengren, M. Ed., is dedicated to supporting parents in doing their best parenting. She helps families create homes where everyone feels accepted, heard, respected and appreciated.

Parents and teachers from across the United States to Australia have been helped through Priceless Parenting's:


online parenting classes

parenting articles


Raising Kids Who Blossom book