Encouragement, criticism, and motivation to change

Written by contributor Jessica Fisher of Life as Mom

Ever have a day when it feels like you can do nothing right? That your efforts to do well land you flat on your face? That you’re being criticized left and right?

These kind of days are a wonderful wake-up call to me. As much as I hate those feelings of discouragement, they remind me that my kids have days like this, too.

In that moment, I realize that I’m guilty of treating them the way I have just been treated. It gives me pause and makes me mindful of being more encouraging, less critical, and motivated to change.

Here are some of the things that I’ve learned about all that.

1. True encouragement motivates.

There’s a fine line between false praise and true encouragement. Kids (and adults) see through the first, but they thrive on the second. Consider these words of encouragement:

  • I like how neatly  you did your copy work. It’s so easy to read.
  • You had a really good attitude when you tackled your math assignment. I know that’s not your favorite thing.
  • Thanks for taking the time to write such a thorough summary of the story. That shows me you really understood what you read.

By offering specific encouragements, you’re giving your child a picture of the positive behaviors they’re displaying as well as cluing them into what they should strive to repeat.

Photo by ClicPhoto

2. Empty criticisms deflate.

We’ve all been on the giving and receiving end of empty criticisms. And they are no fun.

  • Stop that.
  • Why are you always doing that?
  • How come it’s taking you so long?

Empty criticisms communicate displeasure, but they don’t help our students know how to improve or even want to. Empty criticisms just let them know they’re in trouble.

Life in the doghouse rarely promotes true change.

3. Constructive criticism guides.

On the other hand, when we offer concrete examples of what we want our children to accomplish and provide specific steps for improvement, we are setting them up for success. It gives them an emotional boost when we identify what they did right, too.

  • You wrote such an interesting story about the Celts. I really enjoyed reading it. Can I show you where you might want to add some capitals and punctuation next time?
  • I really appreciate your wanting to help your brother do the right thing. Let’s remember to use a soft voice. I think it will be easier for him to listen to you that way.

We all know that kids thrive when we highlight the positives. Unfortunately, in the day-to-day push to get stuff done, we forget to take the long view. Be sure to acknowledge the positives so that they have ears to hear how they can improve.

We can always change.

Truth is, I did my best parenting before I had kids. My own skills in encouragement and constructive criticism need to be honed some more.

But a bad day can be a good teacher.

How do you dole out criticism and encouragement at your house?

About Jessica

Once a public high school teacher, Jessica now homeschools five of her six children, covering 2nd through 10th grades. Her oldest is in college, so the experiment appears to have worked! Grab a copy of Jessica’s new cookbook Good Cheap Eats Dinner in 30 Minutes or Less and the accompanying monthly meal plan to help you save money, eat well, and enjoy some freer time.


  1. This one is a little ouch-y for me. It’s hard to be your child’s main feedback person — the one who cares about him the most but also the one who has the most *invested* in him. Add to that the sheer quantity and variety of ways in which he needs to improve (and the sheer quantity and variety of demands looking at Mom in the face at any given moment), and before I knew it an offhand “That could have been better” or “Um, where are the commas???” was my discouraging comment. Not good. Not helpful.

    Thanks for saying this so well.
    Lori’s latest post: Sprucing Up the Porch for Autumn

    • I think it’s ouchy for all of us. When we choose the role of primary teacher, that involves some kind of correction — in addition to what we already dole out as parents. It’s hard. Goodness, it’s hard.
      Jessica’s latest post: Eat Well, Spend Less for Back to School

      • Exactly — I have pointed out the same thing to our kids at different times through the years. On the one hand, we are to be examples of tolerance, long-suffering, and acceptance of others’ weaknesses. On the other, it is our job to help mold our children’s characters, which necessitates saying things to them we would not say to others. Correcting grammar is one of the most simple and benign examples — but the same applies to much, much deeper things, doesn’t it?
        Lori’s latest post: Sprucing Up the Porch for Autumn

  2. Melissa @ the pleated polka dot says:

    Always helpful! I especially like the approach to the little one helping brother. I will be using that phrasing most likely today:)))
    Melissa @ the pleated polka dot’s latest post: :the one where it doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are:

  3. “Life in the doghouse rarely promotes true change.” Very true. And your examples of how to re-frame things is very helpful.
    Steph’s latest post: Bedtime Learning

  4. Wendy Inman says:

    Thank you, this came at a perfect time 🙂

  5. I needed to hear this today. Thank you.

  6. I try to remember to avoid words like ‘always’, ‘never’, and anything derogatory to his person. His ACTION was wrong; that doesn’t mean he’s a bad PERSON.
    Angela’s latest post: Homeschool Idea: The Week Ahead.

  7. “Life in the doghouse rarely promotes true change.” — LOVE That!
    Johanna @ My Home Tableau’s latest post: The One Thing I’ve Learned to Help Me Read More

  8. Thanks for this great reminder, Jessica. I need to make sure my kiddos are getting the best possible encouragement from me!

  9. Terrific words to keep as a reminder. I defintely fall into this trap from time to time. Usually, I get clued in pretty quick because they tend to get frustrated with working when I am not positive in my words.
    Sharon’s latest post: If you are curioius about what we are doing now…

  10. Elizabeth Kane says:

    Yes. It’s so easy to pass off little side comments as simple nudges helping them along the path. But in reality, they might just be the empty criticisms you talked about – dressed as “constructive criticism” – that can discourage the learning process altogether. I think true encouragement comes from a place where we start walking beside them for a bit, taking a good hard honest look at the obstacle from the kid’s angle – even when a quick coaching order feels easier to give.

Share Your Thoughts


CommentLuv badge

Never miss a blog post,
PLUS get Jamie’s FREE ebook: