Spirit Killers

Volume 7, no. 3

I know a man who met a killer.  It was himself.  He had systematically killed the spirit of the person he loved the most.  He had killed the spirit of his own son.  What hurt this man the most was that he had done it out of his love and a desire for his son to grow up without the flaws he saw in himself.  He discovered that he had killed his son’s spirit, not on purpose, but with love and criticism.

Year’s later, this dad can’t go back and change what he did.  His grown son is seeing a therapist to try to rebuild his shattered self-confidence and discover happiness.  Sadly, he has become the same kind of critic as his father.  Children who live with criticism grow up to be critical and chronically unhappy.  Isn’t this ironic?  Many parents who criticize their children do so in an attempt to help them grow up without flaws.  When asked what they want most for their youngsters, they say they want them to be happy adults.  It’s also interesting that parents who are critical never admit to it.  One extremely critical parent once said to me, “No!  I don’t criticize my daughter.  I guide her!  She must know what she’s doing wrong so she doesn’t continue to make the same mistakes.”

If you could spy into this home, you hear mom’s constant scolding about how her daughter washes her face, puts on a blouse that does not match and talks too loudly during breakfast.  She even criticizes the quality of the child’s kiss as she leaves for school.  “Is that any way to give your mother a kiss?”  Her daughter, still trying to measure up, comes back and tries again.  “I’m sorry, Mom.  I love you.”  I know you do,” answers Mom.  “I love you too.  Now hold your shoulders back when you walk.  People will think you don’t have any pride!”  She humiliates her daughter in front of her friends with reprimands:  “Now look at your friends when they talk to you.  You’ll never have any friends if you act like that!”

I once heard her yell out the front door to her daughter who was playing with her friends:  “Your computer disks are all over the floor!  Those disks are expensive!  Maybe if you had to pay for them you’d be a little more careful!”  She then marched the humiliated child into the house.  Mom describes this approach as guidance.  But professionals have different terms for it—attacking, nagging, humiliation, fault-finding, ridicule, rejection, and criticism.  Regardless of the terms used to describe this style of parenting, the results are the same.  They are deadly.  They don’t show up for years.  Over time, these children become less and less confident.  Their spirits slowly erode away.  They even become their own best critics.

I have a friend who grew up this way.  He has never found true happiness.  He avoids trying things that appeal to him because he fears failure.  Even though the person who severely criticized him in his youth is no longer alive, the voices are still in his mind.  “It’s no longer my dad who does the criticizing,” he says.  “I’ve taken over the job myself.  I constantly remind myself of my inadequacies.  I spend much more time paying attention to what I do wrong than what I do right.  I just hate it!  “But each year the problem gets worse.  The more I recognize my faults, the more I have to be unhappy about.”

This man has another regret: “The sad part is that I find myself criticizing my own children the same way my dad ragged on me.  The more unhappy I am, the more I try to correct my children so they don’t grow up to be like me.  It’s become a vicious circle.”

Do yourself a favor.  Do your children a favor. Remember that youngsters don’t learn by being corrected.  They learn through modeling and example. Try to see your children as children, not small adults.  They learn by making mistakes when we allow them to experience the consequences of those mistakes.  Show empathy, not anger, as your children live with these consequences.  Bite your tongue when you want to tell them what they did wrong.  They can figure that out for themselves.  Bite your tongue when you have impatient words that indicate your child does not measure up.  Instead, focus on what your children do well.  Call these things to their attention ten times as often as you about what they don’t do well. 

You will be rewarded with children who treat you well, notice your strengths instead of your faults, and who grow up to be happier adults who have broken the criticism cycle.