As a parent, we are given the responsibility to protect our children and ensure we meet their needs. But, an equally important responsibility is to guide our children’s behaviour and help them learn from their behaviours. To do so, we must provide corrective feedback.
Even more importantly, our children need to listen to that feedback.
Listening to feedback is an incredibly important skill all children must learn. Once they listen, they can learn from the feedback. Listening to feedback is the best and fastest way for children to learn, grow, and thrive in all areas of life now and in the future.
When kids can listen to and learn from feedback, they become more confident, more capable, more resilient, more flexible, and more successful navigating the complexities of life in every domain than kids who don’t have this skill. They also learn how to consider others’ feedback, how to communicate effectively with others, and how to persevere.
Unfortunately, some children will anxiously and shamefully nod and walk away, beating themselves up for being so bad, dumb, or useless.
Others will exclaim, “I know!” or “I AM doing that!!!”
Or, others still will lash out angrily, telling us how we are the big jerks who are being mean.
Although it might seem like an impossible task, there are effective ways to provide feedback to a child so they actually listen to, accept, and take up.
Types of feedback
Let’s first look at two important types of feedback we need to give our children.
One is corrective feedback, which we use when we need to correct a behaviour. With corrective feedback, our goal is to provide practical and relevant ideas for what they can work on.
Second, and most important, is positive feedback. This is when we make positive comments about what our kids are doing well. They need to hear this positive feedback far more than corrective feedback. They learn best when they hear the positives and become more likely to listen when they get more corrective feedback.
It is important that we are always providing both forms of feedback to promote their ongoing growth and development (and to ensure they listen to what we have to say).
Fortunately, the ability to accept feedback is a skill that our children can learn and strengthen. However, their ability starts with us – as effective communicators and positive role models.
Let’s dig into the most important tips you need to help your child accept feedback (and learn from it!).
Become an Effective Communicator
We parents must first learn how to communicate effectively with our children– especially when giving feedback. There are several things we need to learn to do consistently to be effective communicators.
As I noted above, when we provide effective feedback, we need to ensure that we are not only telling kids what they did wrong or what not to do. It is essential that our kids hear more positive praise than corrective feedback. Kids will listen more when they know what they are doing right. If they feel like you’re constantly nagging them for everything they do wrong, they will not even listen in the first place.
We all know the 5:1 rule: 5 positive comments about what they are doing well to every one corrective feedback. To be even more effective, aim for 9 or more positives to every one correction. Therefore, consciously catch your kids being good throughout the day.
Although it may feel hard to do in the heat of the moment, it is important you prepare yourself before reacting emotionally.
When it is time to provide corrective feedback, before we even open our mouths, we need to be prepared in two ways.
First, we need to be calm so we can maintain a positive, easygoing stance. If you’re setting yourself up for a fight, that tension will seep itself into the conversation. We want to maintain respect, warmth, and support. Coming across as irritated or angry may only make matters worse – especially if our kids feel overwhelmed or attacked.
Second, we want to make sure what we say is meaningful.
- Do you need to give corrective feedback in the first place? What would happen if you didn’t give the feedback?
- If it is important, what is the goal of giving the feedback? Is it helpful for the child’s learning and growth? It is promoting their ability to problem solve? Or am I trying to shame them? Or make things better for myself?
Proceed if you are calm and the feedback is necessary and helpful for the child.
Highlight the positive
Even if you’re regularly praising the positive, when it comes time to give corrective feedback, always highlight the positives of the situation first. Again, they will listen when we point out things they are doing right. Even if it feels impossible, there is likely something right that your child has done. For instance, if they are laying on the floor at the backdoor instead of putting their shoes on, at least they got themselves to the back door! Praise that first, “Hey bud, thanks for coming to the back door.”
Acknowledge and validate their perspective
First, always want to validate what your kids are doing well.
Once you point out what they are doing well, you can acknowledge and validate their perspective before correcting them. Otherwise, they may feel like they need to defend themselves because you don’t understand.
For instance, if they scream in frustration when their little sister won’t stop humming, you can say, “It looks like you really need some quiet right now.”
By acknowledging their perspective, you are letting them know you understand how they feel and that they have some underlying need behind the behaviour.
Prepare them for feedback
Before jumping into the problem behaviours, give your kids a pre-warning to let them know what to expect. State that you have some feedback that you’d like to share with them. To help them feel like they have some control, I’d even ask them if they’re up for hearing the feedback.
If they are open to hearing your feedback, clarify that now’s a good time. If not, ask them to let you know when a good time would be.
When kids don’t feel like they have any control over the situation, their guard will go up and they will become defensive before we even start talking. We want to ensure that everyone is as relaxed as possible, so giving them choice is important. Nobody likes unsolicited advice.
If I see my girls have had a bad day at school or got into trouble, I validate their perspective and then say that I have some ideas on how to help in a situation if they want it. If they ask for my ideas, then I know they have their listening brain on. Their brains otherwise shut off immediately if I instead start to tell them what they need to do.
If siblings are fighting, instead of yelling at them to stop fighting, acknowledge the situation and that you have some ideas on how to help them solve it and they can come chat with you if they’d like.
Be succinct and explicit
When you address the behaviour, use explicit, succinct, and straightforward language. We don’t want lengthy lectures – they will tune out what we have to say. As well, focus on one specific behaviour at hand. Don’t bring in a laundry list of complaints.
We definitely don’t want any room for misinterpretation. Saying, “Be good” is way too vague – what does that even mean? If what you say could fit in any situation, it’s too broad. Be specific about the exact behaviour you want to see and don’t want to see.
Similarly, remain objective when describing the behaviours. We want to ensure our children still feel loved and supported, no matter what their behaviour. Therefore, only talk about the specific behaviour you see. Don’t judge the behaviour (e.g., of good or bad) or label your child. The focus is on their behaviour, not who they are as a person.
So, instead of saying, “You’re not sharing very well” or “You’re so selfish!” say, “You took all the cookies.”
As well, avoid saying “you” – that sounds far too blamey and their listening brains will shut down as they go into fight-flight mode.
Instead, use “I” statements. Such as, “I feel frustrated when all the dishes stack up in the sink. What can we do to work together?”
Focus on the process versus the outcome
We always want to focus on the process rather than the outcome.
Consider these two scenarios.
“Johnny, these dishes still have food all over them!”
“Hey Johnny, thanks for doing the dishes kiddo. That was such a big help for us tonight. It looks like some of these dishes still have food on them. What do you think we could do to get the last bit of this food off?”
The first focuses on the outcome, which kids will fight against. Even if they acknowledge that there is still food on the plate, they will get angry for never feeling like they can ever do anything good enough for you. Their self-esteem could be affected.
And then, if you tell them what to do, the anger will only get stronger. And they will never change their behaviour nor learn to persevere in the future. Because you’re the one being mean.
However, in the second scenario, kids are more likely to listen because their parents have acknowledged the work that they did do. They might still be annoyed but they will likely come over and help finish cleaning up. In the future, they are more likely to do something different. And, their self-esteem will not be affected.
If we always focus on the outcome, our kids will never learn. And we run the risk of making our kids feel anxious, incompetent, or unworthy. They are also more likely to develop perfectionism and anxiety if we focus on outcome over process.
Ask versus tell
Instead of telling our kids what to do (no one likes being bossed around), ask them open-ended questions. Get them thinking critically and, most importantly, get them problem-solving so they actually learn from the situation, which is critical to changing behaviours.
Ask questions like, “How is getting your shoes on going?” to cue them to the expected behaviour.
We can also ask questions to help them problem solve. For example, “Ah, I see you got a detention for swearing. “What did you learn from this situation?” Or, “What can you do for next time?”
Asking these types of questions helps them build their problem-solving brain and, even more importantly, see that mistakes really are learning opportunities and not failures to be punished.
If they are having trouble coming up with ideas on how to fix a situation, you can also say things like, “I have ideas about what I would do in this situation” versus telling them what they should do. The more inviting you are to collaborate ideas, the more willing children will be to engage in the discussion.
Focus on what they should be doing
When giving ideas for different behaviours, focus on what kids could be doing instead of the problem behaviour – that is, what they shouldn’t be doing. Our brain has a hard time processing the negative (e.g., whatever you do, don’t think of an elephant!!! – our brain is going to immediately think of an elephant). By focusing on what we do want to see, it will be easier for kids to be successful.
Be realistic with your expectations
We want our kids to be successful, so set them up for success. They are often juggling multiple stressors and often feel overwhelmed. Evaluate your expectations and focus on the one, most important behaviour you want to address at a time.
Praise in public
Everything else should be kept in private. Calling kids out in front of other people – even siblings or grandparents will never be received well. Our kids will go into fight-flight mode, making it impossible for them to hear what we have to say.
Be a Good Role Model
In addition to being an effective communicator, it is just as important for us to model how to accept feedback.
After all, our children learn a lot by watching how we handle situations. If we can’t take corrective feedback effectively, chances are slim that they will be able to.
Here are some tips to be solid role models for your children.
Just as our children need practice, practice is helpful for you too. Set up situations in which your children can provide you with corrective feedback. Whether it’s cooking, cleaning, or even driving! Have them give critiques that you can gracefully take up and learn from.
Ask for feedback
Whenever the opportunity arises, ask questions about what they think of how you did something or handled a situation. Ask for ideas on what you can improve on.
Talk about experiences
You can also talk about times when you have been given feedback by others. Include obvious times, like feedback from a boss but also feedback you may receive from others like from your partner or from someone in traffic. Talk about how you felt, what you learned, and what you did/are going to do.
Accept feedback how you would like your children to
- In the heat of the moment when you are receiving feedback (especially unexpectedly), try to remain calm.
- Label how you are feeling. Being able to label our emotions helps us manage them effectively. Over time we actually boost our resilience and overall emotion management when we become master emotion labellers.
- Instead of becoming defensive, acknowledge what the other person has said so you fully understand the message they are sharing. Try to understand from their perspective, even if you disagree or have more to the story to share. You can even say things like, “That makes sense to me…” For example, “That makes sense to me that you think I am being mean right now because I am not letting you play video games.”
- Practice active listening. Repeat what you hear and ask if you understood correctly. Ask questions for clarification. Maintain open, accepting, engaging body language.
- Thank the person giving the feedback.
- If you do not agree, this is not the time to become defensive. Acknowledge the feedback. It is okay to say that you want to go really think about this and then ask if you can talk about it again once you’ve had a chance to reflect.
At the end of the day, nurturing your relationship with your child helps this process. Maintaining your connection with your child and remaining calm are both critical through this process to avoid any escalation. With practice, kids can learn to easily listen to and learn from corrective feedback.