How to Free Your Child from the Critics' Trap

I once had a wonderful professor who was funny and a great teacher in front of the class. When I spoke with him privately, though, I felt like an idiot. Once, while discussing my plans for a research project, he snapped, “Why would you want to do that?!?”which left me feeling off-balance and dumb, not sure why I had thought “that” was such a great idea in the first place.

Consciously or not, by belittling my ideas, he made himself look smarter.  “Teresa Amabile at Harvard showed that humans have a tendency to perceive critics as smarter than approvers when they lack sufficient information to make judgments on the content of statements,” reports Dave Shearon, MAPP.

In fact, Teresa Amabile says, “Negative reviewers were perceived as more intelligent, competent and expert than positive reviewers, even when the content of the positive review was independently judged as being of higher quality and greater forcefulness.”

Are Positive People Dumber?

This got me think about the common saying, “Fat, dumb and happy.” Where did that come from and why do we conjure an image of the Pillsbury Dough Boy when we use the word “happy?” Whatever the origins, you can be sure it is not a recent development. According to Shearon, Gustave Flaubert said, ‘To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.’

We set up a flawed choice in our language and perceptions: be negative and smart or cheerful and dumb .  Do we really want to leave our children (or ourselves) with the idea that being critical and negative means you’re smarter?  Not if we want them to live, long satisfying lives, we don’t (see #1 below).

To free your child from the critics' trap, show them that this is a flawed choice, that they can be both positive and smart.  Here are a few ways to do this:

1. Know the Recipe for a Satisfying Life

Maybe we would be less skeptical of cheerfulness if we understood that to live a long, healthy life you must feel more positive emotion, according to research on health, nuns, and Harvard men.   The “heart strengths” of love, hope, zest and gratitude are correlated with life satisfaction and intellectual strengths are not, according to Marty Seligman and Chris Peterson
This must have been obvious to Ernest Hemingway, who said, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”

2. Remind him that a 2-year-old can say, “No.”

We have this notion that it’s more sophisticated to be negative, but the fact is it’s so simple that even a toddler can do it. What’s sophisticated is coming up with creative new ideas, concepts, products and services.

Demonstrate this to your teen by setting a timer and asking her to criticize something of yours (writing, cooking, clothing…). Then set the timer again and ask her to help you expand upon the good aspects of the item in question. She’ll see how much more time, effort and thought go into building-up than tearing-down.

3. Seek the Gems

A friend’s father once said, “I’ve never met a man from whom I cannot learn” and in the past 25 years I’ve found he’s absolutely right. Encourage your child to find a gem, something smart and worth understanding, in others and in himself.

When he looks for things to appreciate, not only will he learn and explore the world with curiosity and intelligence,  but he'll increase the positive emotions that lead to lasting happiness.   Isn't that smart?  :)

Your child has tremendous potential and specific gifts to share with the world. If it's a challenge for you to see this right now, you need a Better Frame of Reference.  A good place to start is our small-group Parent Mentoring program on January 30, in Wellesley, MA.  Learn more...

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