One of the best gifts you can give your child for the holidays costs nothing: A ban on criticism.
We all criticize, even those of us who vowed we never would. The toddler picks up a shoe in a shoe store and throws it; the third-grader forgets his homework for the umpteenth time; the 14-year-old blows off studying for a math test in favor of IM'ing, and there we are, in their face:
''What is wrong with you? How could you do something so stupid/mean/irresponsible/lazy?! Don't you ever think?!"
OK, that's a little extreme. But isn't that the point? Just because we're parents doesn't mean we aren't human. Out of frustration, embarrassment, exhaustion, anger -- the list is endless -- we sometimes speak words that are just as irresponsible or mean as some of our children's actions.
Here's the problem: When we criticize, a child comes to think there is something wrong with her. Not with what she does or says, not with the choice she makes or her decision-making process, but with her. With the essence of who she is.
''Criticism is an attack upon your very self," says parent educator and best-selling author Adele Faber. ''The effects can be profound."
How we communicate with a child over time is how he ends up communicating with himself.
''It's as if, by hearing your voice over and over again, he builds a parent inside himself, a mirror image of you," says child and adolescent psychiatrist Gene V. Beresin, associate professor at Harvard who practices at Massachusetts General Hospital.
If the messages parents give are hopeful, optimistic, and full of faith and pride in a child, the reflection grows into a sense of confidence and competence. Facing a challenge, this child tells himself, ''This is hard, but I can do it." If a parent's messages are repeatedly harsh, critical, and negative, ''The child's image of himself is as bad, unworthy, incompetent," says Beresin. This child faces a challenge and likely asks himself, ''Why bother?"
The child who lives with criticism, says Faber, ''learns to condemn herself and to find fault with others, to doubt her own judgment and to distrust the intention of others. She lives with the expectation of impending doom because her sense of herself is that she can't manage: 'I'm stupid, I'm hopeless.' "
The more a child thinks there is something intrinsically wrong, the less likely he is to think there is anything he can do about it. He might think, for instance, ''I can't learn my math skills because I'm not smart enough." In his mind, his intelligence is fixed and finite, says psychologist Dawna Markova, president of Smartwired.org, a website for parents, and author of ''The Smart Parenting Revolution" (Ballantine, 2005).
A child who thinks this way is likely to avoid anything in which she might fail. Markova says, ''It's as if she's living with a terrible secret -- 'I'm not smart enough' -- and she's afraid this fixed amount of intelligence will be revealed."
The more criticism a child hears, the greater her sense of ''not enough-ness," says Markova. ''If a 5-year-old's every interaction with his baby brother results in a parent saying, 'How can you be so mean to your brother?' that child is likely to grow up thinking he doesn't have the capacity to love. Eventually, he can even come to believe that he isn't worthy of being loved," Markova says, adding, ''There's a lot of self-fulfilling prophesies that come out of criticism."
In contrast, a child whose parents convey a capacity to grow and learn is likely to have what Markova calls an orientation of mastery, a pick-yourself-up-dust-yourself-off attitude.
To be fair, there are degrees of criticism. Drexel University psychologist Myrna Shure says some is ''downright criminal, the lowest rung of the ladder," statements such as, ''You're a slob, your room looks like a pig pen," which is belittling and shaming. But even when it's well-intentioned, criticism hurts.
''Children don't hear good intentions. They hear words, and tone of voice," says Shure, who is author of ''Thinking Parent, Thinking Child" (McGraw Hill, 2005). She offers this scenario:
A 15-year-old girl complains to her mother about a boy who doesn't pay attention to her. Here's the mother's response: ''What do you do to make him ignore you?"
''The mother is worried her daughter is a snob," says Shure. ''She thinks she's helping her see how she comes across to other people. The daughter hears, 'Mom thinks it's my fault. There's something wrong with me.' "
This kind of exchange is a particular pitfall for parents of teenagers. ''A steady diet of it and a teen will stop coming to the mother for advice altogether," says Faber. Her newest book, with co-author Elaine Mazlish, is ''How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk" (Collins, 2005).
It's not as if parents can never offer advice or be constructive. The trick is to come across as a coach, not a critic.
A second-grader sits at the piano bench with his parent, struggling to play the scales with his left hand. He can't get sound out of the key his pinky strikes. He's getting screechy. Which parent would you be:
Parent A: ''I can see these lessons are going to be a waste of money! Why can't you do this?"'
Parent B: ''Playing the piano is harder than I realized! Seems like a person who writes with the right hand has weaker muscles in the left hand. I never thought about that. I guess it takes a lot of practice to play with both hands."
It's a no-brainer that the child of Parent B is the one who will want to keep trying. ''Accepting a child's feelings and validating them can go a long way," says Faber. Parent B also gives her child hope, a word that Beresin keeps coming back to.
''Children know there is a process of growing and learning and that sometimes you fall down," he says. ''If they are made to feel ashamed or humiliated or insecure or stupid in the process, they'll stop trying. A parent or teacher's job is to hold out the hope and the faith that with practice and skill building and achievable goals, he can succeed," he says.
Faber offers some strategies for doing this:
Describe the problem instead of telling what's wrong with him: ''You're the one who wanted a dog and now it feels like I'm the one who's walking him," rather than, ''You promised you would walk the dog! You are irresponsible. I can't count on you."
Describe your feelings instead of assuming his. For instance, ''I get so frustrated when I cook a nice meal and by the time you get to the table, everything is cold," rather than, ''Why are you so inconsiderate? Now I can't even enjoy what I cooked."
Faber adds, ''That also models how to be honest about feelings without being hurtful."
Give information, not orders: ''When it's snowing, the best protection against sitting through classes with wet feet all day is to wear boots instead of sneakers," rather than, ''Can't you see it's snowing? Where's your brain? You can't wear sneakers!" Or try a one-word chant: ''Boots. Boots. Boots."
If you do all this and you still don't change your child's mind, change the mood instead, says Faber: Use a made-up language or accent, a song, a poem, or humor to make your point. And if that still doesn't work, depending on the situation, natural consequences are often the best teacher.
When Faber's grandson, Sam, was a toddler and prone to messes, he shook his Sippy Cup so hard that the lid flew off. Juice was everywhere. He went to pieces. His mother said, ''Oh, Sammy, you didn't want that to happen, did you? You found out that when you shake a Sippy Cup too hard, it shakes all over the place!"
Days later, Faber was visiting. She put her packages on the counter where they knocked over a vase. ''Oh, Nana!" Sammy told her, his voice oozing empathy. ''You didn't want that to happen, did you? You found out you have to be careful where you put things."
You can contact Barbara Meltz at email@example.com. After Jan. 5, look for her stories in the Living/Arts section. Also join her parenting chats at Boston.com at noon on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month.