Important Times to be Quiet – When You Want to Criticize

One of the best feelings in the world for me is when I am tempted to say something that is critical of another person and come so ever close, but hold my words back.  Later on I feel a joy in my heart and victory over my proneness to be critical.

There is a need in all of us for criticism that is constructive.   Without it athletes would not improve, students would be mediocre, artists and musicians would not reach their potential.   But I am not talking about that kind of criticism.    The destructive type of criticism is given quickly without thought and designed to express displeasure rather than to build and help.

Someone wrote, “The unfortunate thing about constructive criticism is that nobody really appreciates is as much as the one who’s giving it”.     I think therein is a clue as to improper criticism – when the person that gives it enjoys it, for whatever reasons.

One of my mentors in school, J.R. Faulkner, gave us this piece of advice concerning criticism, “If you want to say, you probably ought not do so; but you don’t want to say it, you probably ought to say it”.   Of course, that is a rule of thumb and there are exceptions, but it does speak to our motive when we want to say something critical.

Some never deal with their critical spirit because it is given under a guise of their personality or being helplful – “I’m just a perfectionist”….”I just want to help them to reach their potential”.   But deep inside we know when our words were cutting to a person and had no productive purpose.   It would have been better if we had been quiet and held our thoughts to ourselves.     It is easier to criticize and attack than to pray for the person.

An environment of constant criticism is never a good place to be in, but especially when it is in the home.   I have found that fathers tend to be more critical of their children than mothers.   It usually stems from a good motive as they want them to be successful and so they push them hard.  Sometimes  they push too hard, becoming overbearing and looking for opportunities to help their child “improve” when the child interprets it as nagging criticism.

However,  this doesn’t work over the long haul.   We pull away from those that criticize us over and again.   Who enjoys being verbally punched and feeling beaten and bruised by the words of another person time and time again?   When a child pulls away from his father or mother, they cannot be helped by their wisdom.

This is Jordan, my third son, and middle child. He is our miracle child, born six weeks early and he had to stay in the hospital for several weeks before he could come home. Big sister and brother, Ashley and Jeremiah, are enjoying having another brother.

What is criticism?   The dictionary defines the word criticize – “to find fault, to judge unfavorably or harshly”.     When we criticize we are focused on finding fault and becoming judges rather than seeing what is good and becoming an encourager.

Our words have great power to hurt or to help people.  One of the metaphors in the Bible for the human tongue is the mouth of a serpent where it says “…it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison”.   (James 3:8)

As the venom of a serpent can do great damage and even cause death to a person, so our critical words do great damage and can kill the good reputation of other people.  However, the fangs of a snake cannot inject poison when it’s mouth is shut.   How much less destruction and hurt would we do if we just kept our mouths shut when we want to criticize.

It is easy to criticize.   Usually our tendency to find fault is an attempt to build ourselves up at the expense of another’s failures.    It takes little intelligence to identify a problem and then to point it out.    It takes creativity and initiative to solve the problem.    We show our weakness when we quickly blurt out comments that identify faults, but we show our maturity when we point out the strengths of others and become encouragers.

Someone said, “Nothing is easier than fault-finding; no talent, no self-denial, no brains, no character are required to set up in the grumbling business”. 

I coached baseball for 20 years and on almost every team I had a father that tried to motivate his son through criticism.   He would either be in the stands constantly yelling things for the child to correct and change or, even worse, walk up to the back of the dugout after each inning and rehearse the child’s failures.

It made my heart break.    One time it got so bad with one father that I asked him to wait until after the game because he was causing his son to cry.   Later I challenged the dad to become more of an encourager than a critic to his son.  (His son was not a gifted player in the first place and was doing the best he could.   The dad’s critical words only made him feel worse and didn’t give him a desire to do better).

Usually our kids know when they made a mistake on the ball field.   They are embarrassed about it and the worst thing we can do is to highlight it in front of all of their friends.    Frankly, I can’t understand why anyone would want to do that to someone they loved.   If they applied the same standard to themselves, would they want to be treated that way?

Encouragement is just as easy as criticism.   The difference is that you are looking for something to praise rather than to condemn and criticize.   In Kenneth Blanchard’s classic book, “The One Minute Manager”, he gives three principles to managing people and one of them is to be on the look out for things to praise in their work.   This would be a great plan for parents with their children.   It is biblical; the Bible tells us to “…exhort one another daily…”.   (Hebrews 3:13)

We need encouragement frequently and our best cheerleaders ought to be those in our family.   Someone wrote, “Any old donkey can kick a barn down, but it takes a good carpenter to build one”.     Learn to pay attention to your words.   Are you one that tears down or builds up?

Most of the time criticism is given with incomplete information.    It is especially easy to hammer leaders over decisions they have made, but if you had the same information they did on which the decision was based, you may have come to the same conclusion.

One of my favorite proverbs is that “idealism increases in direct proportion to your distance from the problem”.   Perhaps a corollary might be, “criticism decreases in direction proportion to your closeness to the problem”.

Getting correct information and, even better, going through the same experience as another person will greatly temper your quickness to criticize.    “It is better to be quiet until one understands”, wrote Laura Adams Armer.

It is so easy to forget what it was like to be a child or a teenager when we are years away from that era of our lives.   It is important that we pause and try to remember our own struggles and tendencies at that age before we bore in with both barrels verbally destroying our kids.

Jordan finally got to come home and we all got to spoil him.

When I was in college two students were at the sinks in the bathroom brushing their teeth before they went to bed.   One of the men finished brushing and bent over with his mouth close to the faucet to drink some water to rinse his mouth from the toothpaste.   The student beside him was appalled and immediately rebuked him, “I can’t believe you’re doing that – drinking directly from the faucet!   Didn’t your mother teach you any better?”

The fellow gradually stood up straight, wiped his mouth, and looked directly at the critic and said softly, “My mother died when I was five years old”.   And he walked out of the bathroom.

The critic stood there for a few minutes, stunned and embarrassed at his outburst and then quietly left.   I think he went to his room and wished a thousand times that he had kept his mouth shut.

Some use the “sandwich approach” when criticizing.   First, praise is given for something they are doing well, then the criticism is brought up over an area to be addressed, and then you close with another area in which to praise them.   Thus, the sandwich – praise, criticism, praise.

It sounds really good unless this is the only time the person hears praise.   Whenever they hear your positive words they do not mean anything because they are bracing themselves for the negative words that follow.   When praise is never offered without a word of criticism attached, the praise means nothing.

Another helpful piece of counsel J.R. Faulkner gave to his students was that when we need to correct someone never put it on paper, giving it to them in a note or an e-mail.   And when we have something encouraging to communicate to make sure to write it out and give it to them.    Which piece of paper would you rather have to ruminate over?    What a great principle to apply to training our children!

For parents it’s a delicate balance as one of our responsibilities is to provide direction to our children and this, of necessity, means we must correct them (Ephesians 6:4).   However, if we fail to encourage them, not equally, but more than we constructively criticize them, there will be no improvement – only distance in our relationship as they pull away from us.

I love sports and enjoyed participating in them when I was younger.   I am so grateful my father didn’t ride me about things and let me enjoy the games.    I love music and enjoy playing the piano.  It ministers to me as I play as unto to the Lord.   I’m so glad that my parents didn’t push me to be a protege’ and to be the best of my peers.    I love to teach God’s Word and see lives changed.    I’m so blessed that my parents didn’t criticize my feeble attempts when I first started and found something rather to praise.

Let’s learn to help our kids to grow and mature by teaching them and correcting them when necessary, but along with the constructive criticism, let’s provide an abundant amount of encouraging words.   They will remember us for one or the other.

About familyencouragement

Pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama. Married for 41 years with seven children and nine grandchildren.
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