Give Specific Feedback

“The object of teaching a child
is to enable him to get along without his teacher.”
– Elbert Hubbard –

When I was taking classes for a Master’s Degree in writing, I was mentored each semester by a different award-winning author. Each one coached me on my writing and critiqued my manuscripts. One semester, my mentor was Susan Fletcher. The first time Susan returned one of my manuscripts, I was surprised to see that she had not only marked the places that needed work, but she had also marked the places she liked, the lines she thought I had gotten right. She even drew little hearts beside paragraphs that she loved. I hadn’t realized until that moment how helpful it was to be told exactly what I was doing right. Once I could see what I did right, I not only knew what target to aim for, but I also knew I could hit it.

When we give children specific feedback, focusing primarily on what they do right, it helps direct them toward doing it again. Of course, sometimes we also have to point out what they do wrong. In either case, it’s best to avoid generic dog-training language (“Good boy!” “Bad girl!”). Instead, label the act specifically.

• “Thank you for sharing. That was generous of you.”
• “You picked up the towel I dropped. That was very thoughtful.”
• “You spoke up for the new girl. That took courage.”
• “You let him go first. That was very courteous.”

If you’re a teacher, try to compliment children in front of their parents once in a while. “Gracie is one of the most considerate kids I know.” “Daniel asks the most interesting questions. He’s a deep thinker.”

A warning: When you address a misbehavior, take care. Make sure you label the behavior, not the child. For example, instead of saying, “You’re so rude,” say “That was a rude tone of voice.” Also, make sure that you’ve read the situation correctly and are not falsely accusing a child. My mother once told me, “You’re just an ingrate.” In reality, I was upset, because I had been too shy and scared to speak out. I was also too shy to correct her. You can see, too, that she addressed my character and not my behavior. I don’t say this to demean my mother. She was a good, godly woman. My point is that accusing a child wrongly can cut deep, especially if the comment is directed to the child’s character as opposed to the behavior.

It’s important for children to see themselves as moral. As we saw earlier, one of the signs that children are maturing morally is that they think of themselves as being morally wise. In other words, in their own minds, being moral is part of their identity: “That’s who I am.” We can help them find and use their moral compass by mirroring back to them a positive moral vision of themselves.

adapted from The Gift of an Inner Moral Compass © Karyn Henley.
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