In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie talks about the importance of not criticizing, condemning, or complaining. It's the first principle in the entire book. Isn't that interesting? An entire book full of principles about creating relationships with people, and he chooses to use this one to start it off. I wondered about that for a little while.
Then I realized what happens when I criticize someone. They defend themselves. They have reasons for what they are doing and when I criticize their decisions or actions, they get mad and rationalize why they did what they did. It creates a barrier between us, an extra obstacle to a good relationship that I have to overcome before moving forward. It just makes for extra work. And relationships, especially with kids are work. It's satisfying work, but work nonetheless.
Not criticizing doesn't mean that you don't hold kids accountable for their actions. You do. We've all heard that the behavior is not the kid and that we should address the behavior and not label the kid. It's true, but sometimes it is hard to separate the two.
I've found that I am much less prone to criticize when I am following Stephen Covey's principle of seeking to understand before I try to get my point across. What is going on in the life of this young human in front of me that is driving this behavior? If I can figure this out often I am able to create space to have a safe conversation with a student that addresses the behavior. Instead of creating resentment, I try to build the relationship by making sure the student feels understood before we talk about how to change the behavior, or what the consequences might be. I try to make it clear that my goal is not to punish them, but to reinforce a change to more appropriate behavior. I try to be, as Josh Shipp would say, "In their face, but on their side." OK truthfully, I am not really even in their face very much. But I want kids to know that I am on their side and that I don't want to power struggle with them, because we both lose.
Once, there was a student at my school who was one mean sucker. Can I call him Steve? Let's call him Steve. He was consistently saying mean things and swearing at kids under his breath. Eventually, he ended up in a long term in-school suspension because he refused to change his behavior. There was one particular student who hated Steve. And, Steve had really been a jerk to him.
I could have pulled Steve into the office and berated him about being a jerk and talked about how he will never change and blah, blah, blah. What I did instead was had the two boys come to my office together. In a safe space I had the other boy explain how Steve's teasing and mean comments made him feel. Then I gave Steve an opportunity to share some of what was going on in his life. The change between the two boys was pretty amazing. I wouldn't say that they were friends, but there was a deep respect that came from understanding each other that lasted for the next couple of years until both boys went to new schools.
Steve was never perfect while he was at my school. But he made tons of progress. He still visits from time to time and I enjoy hearing how well he is doing now. He's grown up and figured a few things out. The fact that he visits is evidence to me that I had an influence on him though. And you can't develop influence to help make change unless your way of being toward someone is right. By doing my best to understand him, I didn't give into the temptation to criticize him, which would have built a wall between us and would have caused him to resent me instead of listen.