Leave the Cowlick Alone: The Art of Effective Criticism

Imagine showing up at your job every single day knowing that you had to meet with your CEO or board of directors for a performance review. I’m not just talking big-picture evaluations. Imagine every email you send will need to be defended, every word spoken will be assessed, and even your professional attire will be scrutinized.

For an adolescent, this is reality. High school is one continuous performance review – academically, athletically, socially, materially, romantically. Every single aspect of a teenager’s life is under a microscope from teachers, peers, and coaches. No wonder the rates of anxiety in the country are on the rise. In iGen, her book on anxiety and teens, Jean Twenge warns that, “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades.”

When parents join the chorus of constant critique with the rest of a teen’s milieu, the family relationship unravels like grandma’s knitted sweater.

The vast majority of parents truly desire to cultivate relationships with their children, but there’s a resounding complaint I hear from kids: “It’s never enough.” Many teens feel that their parents are never satisfied with their performance. Grades aren’t high enough, time isn’t scheduled enough, points weren’t scored enough, money isn’t managed enough. Nothing is ever enough.

Wanna know the scary part? Criticism is the number one killer of relationships. Period.

Doesn’t matter if it’s a spouse, a coworker, a friend, or a child. If you want a sure-fire way to crush a relationship, start criticizing. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a very appropriate time and place to offer constructive criticism to a child, but there’s also a very appropriate time to shut our mouths and allow natural and logical consequences to run their course. When parents stop fearing that their child will fail, it forces the child to take responsibility for their own actions. It also frees the parent up to walk the road beside them, not chase them down the street with a verbal whipping stick.

Nobody wants to be in a relationship like that. And anybody would keep running from a relationship like that.

My plea to parents (myself included) is that we create a home environment where our kids feel like they can actually breathe. Home should be a place where our words are delicately selected and the intent is truly to speak the truth in love, not speak the truth of our laundry list of unmet expectations and disappointments. What we may even innocently offer as “advice” or “helping” is heard as disapproval and complaint – nag, nag, nag. In the counseling office I have learned a fundamental truth:

Every child wants to do well and (when they’re not discouraged or angry) wants to please their parents.

When we retreat to our Lord, He meets us where we are, not where we “should” be. Do we do the same for our kids? The Lord shapes us into the person HE desires us to be. Do we want our children to be shaped into the people we want them to be or do we allow them to be shaped into who the Lord has created them to be?

I can’t help but think of John the Baptist. As a mom, I can’t imagine that Elizabeth was thrilled with her son becoming known as this beastly man who roamed the wilderness, chowing down on locusts. Talk about social suicide! If my son’s crazy cowlick is quite literally rearing its ugly head, I compulsively pull out the dreaded (swore I would never do that) mom-lick-and-stick to smash that sucker right back down. How much more did John’s mom want to teach him social etiquette and basic grooming skills?! And yet, his pinnacle career achievement, baptizing our Lord Jesus, was performed in the wilderness, exactly where John was called to be. Had Elizabeth tried to “tame” John, would it have been to save her from embarrassment? My 6-year old doesn’t care about his cowlick. That’s my stuff. And the damage I can do to his self-esteem and our relationship by criticizing such a trivial thing isn’t worth the relief I feel in the moment. I may win the battle, but I’m certainly losing the war.

As I said earlier, there is time for constructive criticism – that’s part of personal growth. The opposite extreme of parents who blindly tolerate any behavior from the child is also not loving. Christ doesn’t do that with us. He teaches us, He guides us, He instructs us, and yes, He disciplines us. The tree must be pruned to allow for new growth. One of my favorite aspects of counseling is teaching a parent and child how to both give AND receive criticism, but only when it is rooted in love.

Ephesians 4:15 reminds us that we sometimes need to say the hard things to our kids, but that our tone and motives must be checked. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

When we think of our family as a bodily unit, we see that its nutritional sustenance is love. Every relationship grows when it’s grounded in a loving foundation so that when criticism is provided, it’s given out of a desire that the child become more like Christ, not a desire to become more like our parental preferences. Our kids can flourish when they know that we’ve got their backs, even during the hard conversations.

Once that groundwork is laid, which may take time and perhaps even additional counseling to heal deep-rooted wounds, I teach my clients the simplest, yet most effective method of offering constructive criticism. I call it The Sandwich. Imagine a delicious Rueben, on fresh rye and piled high with corned beef and swiss. The bread is always the starting place and without good bread, everything else falls apart. The sandwich is mush. In communication, the bread is identifying and praising your child for whatever is going right. Once that’s been established, then we can move to the meat and cheese. Simply put, it goes like this:

“When you ________, I feel _______, and I would appreciate it if you would _______.”

For instance, “When you forget to unload the dishwasher, I feel disrespected and annoyed, and I would appreciate it if you would set a reminder on your phone to remember.”

Finally, every good sandwich is topped with bread, so we come back to the positive. “Thanks for listening, I appreciate you helping the family, etc.”

This conversational model is unemotional. There are no personal attacks and no exaggerations. It avoids over-generalizations like you “NEVER” help around the house or you “ALWAYS” forget your lunch. That type of language isn’t effective and will shut off communication with a teenager like a light switch.

All relationships include conflict, but seething criticism doesn’t have to be the hallmark. Healthy resolution is not only attainable, but also serves as a beautiful window into how kindly and thoughtfully our Heavenly Father speaks to us.

This article is made available to you by the Rooted Ministry for educational purposes only, not to provide specific therapeutic advice. The views expressed are the personal perspectives of the author and do not represent the views of all counselors or the profession. This article does not create a counselor-client relationship and should not be used as a substitute for competent therapeutic counsel from a licensed professional in your state.

A proud graduate of Auburn University, Alice is a licensed professional counselor specializing in adolescents and college students. She enjoys leading seminars for groups both nationally and internationally. Alice is married and has two young boys in Birmingham, AL. 

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