When I hired our children’s piano teacher, he stated clearly that he expected us (the parents) to participate in their lessons so that we could help our kids practice in between. The biggest struggle with practicing at first for both of them was being told they’d made mistakes. There were several power struggles in the beginning, because neither child liked being told that they had made a mistake, that they’d played the wrong note or held a note for too long or not long enough. It was hard work for me to hold my ground through their sometimes volatile resistance, and it was hard work for them to accept the criticism. I explained that mistakes teach them how to play. I explained that they couldn’t learn much of anything without making mistakes. I explained that I love them even when I am showing them where they missed the mark. I explained that making mistakes does not make them bad people. Learning to accept criticism has been just as important as learning how to play the music itself. We are all impressed with how much they have learned as a result of being able to accept criticism.
I’ve heard people speak out against praising children too much, or even at all, because they can become addicted to praise. I do not agree with this stance, and I do not withhold praise, but I do think that praise without criticism in a relationship is meaningless and that the converse is true as well. And I don’t mean that they should happen simultaneously: I have never been a fan of the criticism that starts out with a compliment. That always feels like a bait and switch to me. In the course of helping my kids learn piano, if I only praise my children when they hit the notes right, they have no idea that they have ever hit them wrong. If I only criticize my children without telling them what they are doing right, they have no idea that they have ever hit them right. I want them to trust fully that when I say that they did a good job, I mean it. When I tell them that they made a mistake and need to work harder, I mean that too. They can trust me to reflect to them how they are doing.
The ability to give and accept healthy, truthful criticism is crucial for the growth of any good relationship. Healthy criticism addresses behavior; unhealthy criticism attacks a person’s being. Because so many people have had the unhealthy kind of criticism, it can feel painful at first when you are on either end of the healthy kind. Like everything, it takes practice. You might be afraid of being seen as harsh or mean when you want to tell someone that their actions affected you negatively. You might feel unlovable when someone tells you that your actions impacted them negatively. The important thing to remember, whether giving or receiving criticism, is that criticism alone does not change who you are as a person; it does, however, give you the opportunity to learn about yourself and that learning can transform you into a more truthful person. You do not become a harsh being when you tell someone that they did something that hurt you, you merely have let that person know that they had an impact. You do not become a bad person when you discover that you hurt someone unwittingly, you merely have found out that you had an impact. What you do with that awareness makes all the difference. If you face your fear of criticizing, your criticism can transform a relationship that was previously not hitting the mark. You will find out whether your partner or partner-to-be can handle your truth. If you’ve been given criticism, and if you know yourself well enough to understand that you’ve missed the mark, you have an opportunity to change behaviors that may have kept you from being able to be in a good relationship. On either side of criticism is a golden chance to learn more deeply how to live and love truthfully, and that is worth all the risk and vulnerability involved.