Using Feedback Effectively In Parenting

By Len lantz, md

The Power of Describing the Behavior You Want to See

Feedback is less effective when spontaneously interjected into routine communication. It’s best that you give kids a heads up that you want to see a pattern changed. Make sure they do not have an audience. Take steps to ensure that you have their full attention. Rather than dwelling on the negative side of their behavior, clearly describe the behavior or outcome you want to see. Here are some examples:

  • If your child is refusing to stop playing videogames in the evening, you could say, “Sean, when I walk into this room in the evening and say that it’s time to save your game and turn it off, I want to hear you say, ‘Okay, Dad’ and then get the task done in under 60 seconds. I’ll be here with you while you get it done.”
  • If your child is not starting their homework after school, you could say, “Katie, when you get home from school, I will set a timer for 20 minutes so that you can relax for a little bit. When the timer goes off, I will let you know it is time to start your homework. I want you to say, ‘Okay, Mom,’ hand me your phone and get started on your homework. I’ll hang onto your phone for you so that it’s not a distraction. I’ll hand back your phone – with a smile – when you show me that your homework is done for the day.”
  • If your child is not taking care of their hygiene, you could say, “Cory, we had a talk about this the other day, and it was pretty clear that the best time for you to take a shower each day is in the evening around 8 p.m. That hasn’t been happening. I’m going to check on you each evening around 8 p.m. to make sure that you are getting it done until it becomes your new routine. If it’s 8 p.m. and I find that you are not in the shower, I will remind you – in a friendly way – to take your shower. What I want to hear from you at that moment is, ‘Okay, Dad,’ then pause or wrap up your activity in less than one minute and head to the shower.”


If kids are struggling to change their behavior, one approach parents can use when providing feedback is to refer to the behavior as a habit. Habits can be good or bad, but most people recognize that they are changeable rather than ingrained character flaws. Bad habits like chewing on fingernails sound like something that can be fixed rather than a personal failure. What you name you reinforce. Never use negative labeling. Avoid, “You always” statements, as most people react poorly to     all-or-none statements because they are untrue and easily disproven. Here are some common examples:

Picking on siblings:

It’s not helpful to label the behavior as “bullying.” It’s more effective to label the behavior as a habit of boredom. For example, you could say, “Kevin, I have noticed you have a habit of getting bored, and then you end up pushing your little brother’s buttons for entertainment. I know that you can change that. Let’s sit down together and come up with a list of 20 things that you can do immediately when you are feeling bored rather than using your little brother for entertainment. When I notice that you are pushing his buttons, I’ll point out to you that I think you are bored, which will be our secret code that I want you to do an activity from the list.”

Skipping chores:

It’s best to avoid a negative label such as “lazy” and instead to label the problem behavior as a habit of procrastination. “Tara, I’ve noticed that you have not been getting your chores done, and then when I point that out to you, you get upset. I’m concerned that you have developed a habit of procrastination, and I know that you can change that. Your chore is to vacuum the carpets on the weekend. There is no set time for you to get it done, but you don’t like it when I point out on a Sunday evening that your chore is still not done. It usually only takes you about 15 to 30 minutes to get the job done. If you have busy plans for the weekend, you can develop the habit of being proactive and vacuuming on a Friday afternoon. If I see that you haven’t done it by 11 am on a Sunday, I’ll point it out to you. At that point, I want you to say, ‘Okay, Mom,’ pause whatever activity you are doing and get the vacuuming done before lunch.”

Avoiding certain homework:

It is helpful to avoid language that suggests a child is bad at a certain subject in school. Saying that they do not have a “gift” for a particular subject and that you see they have the habit of avoiding the subject can be more helpful. For example, you could say, “Joe, I noticed that you have not been getting your math homework done, and I’m concerned you have developed a habit of avoiding it. I’m not okay with that, and I know that you can change that habit. I’m well aware that you do not enjoy or feel that you have a gift for math. That does not mean you can’t learn the material and understand the concepts. I’ll help you, so before you finish working on your homework each day, come find me so we can look at your math homework together. I’m sure it can get better. You can develop the habit of proactively tackling difficult subjects!”


Have you ever complimented a child and had it blow up in your face? There may be reasons for this. The most common pitfall is adding a criticism to the compliment. If you say, “Good job!” make sure not to follow it up with, “Why can’t you do this all the time?” Imagine if someone who thought you smelled nice said to you, “Wow! You don’t smell bad…today.” Would that feel like a compliment? The problem for many parents is that when they feel like their child did something right for once, they are so relieved that they let their guard down, and instead of simply complimenting their child, they deliver a back-handed compliment that turns a positive intention into something negative. I’ve heard kids refer to this kind of compliment as a “take-back” compliment because the compliment got mixed up with a criticism. The take-back compliment is usually worse than saying nothing at all.

  • The best compliments are descriptive and simple: “Great job hustling on the field and defending the goal.”
  • Compliments can be enhanced by asking kids if they are proud of themselves or feel good about themselves: “I’m impressed by all the hard work you put in over the years. Are you proud of yourself for getting your diploma?”
  • Compliments can help kids take ownership of their positive outcomes. If a child deflects the compliment or attributes their success to someone else, you could say, “Yes, but you did it!”
  • Compliments can be especially powerful when a child overhears their parent speaking positively about them to another adult (as long as the parent does not sound like they are taking credit for the achievement).
  • Compliments are more effective if the parent is not simultaneously trying to provide feedback or engage in routine communication. ■

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