Constructive Criticism Isn’t

Your husband would be perfect if he just … stopped slouching, remembered you hate red roses, offered to drive the carpool once in a while, stopped biting his nails, etc.

And your kids? Also perfect they would stop procrastinating, clean their rooms and put down their phones! Do you keep these constructive criticisms to yourself? Probably not. Most women have an urge to improve the people they love.

“Your husband didn’t sign up for a permanent self improvement course taught by you,” says Cheryl Rampage, Ph.D., senior vice president for programs and academic affairs at the Family Institute at Northwestern University.

Brains Aren’t Wired for Criticism

It’s very difficult to take criticism from someone you’re close to, she says. When your spouse walks in the door and says, “You parked on my side of the driveway again,” it’s a fight-or-flight moment. According to Rampage, the limbic system kicks in, which is the defensive, lashing-out part of the brain. The cortex, which is the reasoning part, is slower to react. So instead of thoughtfully responding, you snap back and the evening falls apart.

So, can you improve your spouse and children?

“It’s like salt,” Rampage says. “A little goes a long way.” Start with a cushion of loving, accepting support. With enough positive comments, we can tolerate the messages we don’t want to hear.

Choose Your Battles

Kids may expect more correction from their parents than spouses, but by the time they’re teens, your little comment about your daughter’s hair becomes a royal battle.

“Choose your fights,” Rampage suggests. “When you must criticize, remember that for a kid, it’s an assault.” Instead, try to comment on your child being good. Remember, you love your children and your spouse, so tell them why—frequently.

“Thank you for walking the dog.” 
“You are beautiful.”
“Thank you for emptying the dishwasher!”

Your child and spouse should expect that when you open your mouth, most of the time what comes out will be positive. That way, when when you do offer “constructive criticism,” they might just listen!

Dr. Cheryl Rampage spoke on Constructive Criticism at the fall luncheon lecture of the Family Institute at Northwestern University. For information on the spring lecture series, contact the Family Institute at 312-609-5300.