Criticism is tough to take -- and getting tougher all the time for some teens and 20-somethings.
"I've noticed increasingly as we get students in the millennium generation that they do have a hard time not getting the grade they want and reading critical comments. They want A's," said Frances Stott, a professor at the Erikson Institute, a nationally renowned graduate school in child development.
She attributes the trend to two polar ways in which children are being raised.
"Parents have become increasingly child-centered with values that include self-expression. So these kids come to school in a new setting, where they may not be so used to criticism, and are used to feeling very special," she said.
Second, "there are some children - fewer - who have been feeling devalued or rejected in their family," she said. "They also have trouble accepting criticism."
Learning to accept criticism and evaluate one's behavior empowers a child for life.
"Kids, by 5 or 6 years old, are ready cognitively to appreciate that other people are observing and evaluating them," Stott said.
Wise parents help their children - not with false soothing, distractions or praise - but with probing observations, Stott said. For instance, you might say, "I noticed yesterday that Sally didn't want to play with you. Do you have any ideas of why that might be?" With some guidance, the child might respond, "It could be that Sally is having a bad day. Or it could be because I didn't share."
"This helps the child see that they could do something about it," Stott said. "If you can own up to your own mistakes, it ultimately gives you more control because you can then fix it. It's paradoxical because it's painful, even as an adult, to think, 'I said something I shouldn't have said.' On the other hand, actually knowing that is better than doing it again."
Aaron Cooper, a family psychologist and co-author of I Just Want My Kids to Be Happy: Why You Shouldn't Say It, Why You Shouldn't Think It, What You Should Embrace Instead (Late August Press, $15.95), says the title of his book partly explains why young people are struggling with criticism.
"We can't teach our children self-control if we don't say no and set plenty of limits," Cooper said. "And, of course, children will be unhappy when we do. That's natural. So when we make our kids' happiness the most important thing, we often abdicate that role of disciplinarian and teacher and corrector."
It also turns parents into "happiness police," he said.
"We are cruising around our kids' lives looking for anything and anyone that's going to get in the way of our child's happiness. As soon as we spot something, we do whatever we can to push it out of the way of our kids."
Ordinary moments of adversity - a child not getting the lead in the school play - build resilience. "The only way we get good at bouncing back," Cooper said, "is having plenty of practice falling into a pothole in life."
He cites evidence that 20-somethings now are not as resilient as previous generations.
"One indicator is, when we talk to Fortune 500 corporations, managers complain about the young 20-something hires, that they don't want to climb the ladder," Cooper said. "They want to have the corner office yesterday. And if they don't get the promotion, then they're going to look for another job."
"Corporate managers also report that the 20-somethings are having trouble working as a member of a team. ... This is what happens when a generation or two is raised by parents who just want their kids to be happy."
Children may need help deciding whether the criticism is valid. If the teacher writes, "Talks too much in class" on the report card, sit down and ask your child, "What do you think of the teacher's comment? What part of that comment do you think is accurate?"
"That approach to criticism, which I'm calling 'think about it,' " Cooper said, "is more important than what they conclude."
And if the conclusion is that the teacher's criticism is unfair, that doesn't mean you storm the campus.
"We don't want to teach our kids that, with every little misjudgment, we rally and devote time to correcting it," Cooper said. "We want to show our children that there are times we just let things go.
"As long as we understand with our child what needs to be done, we don't need to hold the teacher's legs to the fire. We need to teach our children to not make themselves so important every single moment of the day."
THREE SMART APPROACHES
Instead of crowing about happiness, family psychologist Aaron Cooper suggests planting seeds that bloom into kids' happiness. Here are three:
1. Promote optimism. How? Teach children that mistakes are the best teacher. If they err, criticize only the behavior. Such as: "It's not OK to hit the dog." Not "You're a bad girl for hitting the dog."
2. Use a friendly or neutral voice when you criticize. "If we use a sour tone, it doesn't matter what our words are, the tone conveys 'bad child.'‚" Match your tone and ords, as in, "You know, Mary, it's not a good thing to hit the dog, not a good thing at ll. It hurts the dog."
3. Ask them to critique your behavior. Ask, "What do you kids think about how I'm handling the situation?" If they criticize your behavior, set the example of staying open by saying things like, "I'm going to think about what you said. Thank you for offering your opinion." That shows them the way to respond is to not run out of the room but to give it consideration.