Constructive Criticism

I was doing some work earlier today when the words “constructive criticism” triggered an old memory of mine, of my boss Gloria who had called me into her office one day almost 20 years ago.

“Cecilia, I want to talk to you about something. When you’re at work, you wear a jacket. Always wear a jacket.

I was 24, working at a university and no one but deans dressed up. I mean, the head registrar even walked around in tennis shoes! But I was too frequently mistaken for a graduate student. I looked too young, behaved too young.

I was not the type to argue back then, just the type to curse people under my breath.

Nine years later, I was asked to send a message for Gloria’s retirement book. I wrote about that meeting we had in her office, how insulted I had felt at the time…then I thanked her for looking out for me. I told her I was now in Tokyo as the only woman manager at my company.

In my 40s now, I see so plainly the good that Gloria was trying to do. I would do this for any young female employee in a heartbeat if I cared about her. But as an immature 20-something I had resented her advice, which I viewed as clearly an attempt to embarrass and denigrate me.

I thought that and other similar things whenever I heard anything non-positive coming from my mother as well. “You’re so critical!”, “You’re never satisfied!”, I would cry back whenever my mother pointed out something I wasn’t doing perfectly.

My 7 year old hasn’t quite mustered the same words, but with every grunt, sigh and roll of his eyes I would start hearing more and more of my mother’s old words in mine. “I am not criticizing; I just want you to do better…” I found myself saying once to Fred, and then trailing off. My mother used to say the same thing.

But I think the difference between the motherly criticism in our household and the constructive criticism from Gloria is delivery. With every action of Fred’s, I’m unconsciously trying to see if he is measuring up to a standard. Is he getting dressed quickly enough? Why does he make a huge mess when he erases? Why can’t he remember to turn off the lights each time he leaves his room? It’s so easy to insert a mini personal attack with every reminder: “Please go back and get your book bag. You’re always so forgetful.” Part 1 – “get your book bag” – OK; part 2 – “you’re always so forgetful” – can do without.

Maybe there’s this feeling that if I don’t inject a criticism then he won’t get it. Or maybe, really, it’s my way of wanting to let him know that he’s disappointed me.

Growing up I’d heard the label “procrastinator” so much that by the time I got into my teens I purposely made no effort to improve. It was who I was, what was expected of me. A (big) part of me didn’t want to give my mom the satisfaction of improving, because it would mean that she had won.

I came to see myself in terms of the many labels with which I was attributed, but seldom did I focus on actions that I could change. And I think that is why Gloria was so effective. Though I had felt humiliated, she, in fact, never once told me I was immature or unprofessional; she simply told me what I should do to be a better professional.

And become a better professional I did…who procrastinated. Sometimes.

How do you handle criticism as a parent? Do you ever say more than you feel you should (please tell me it’s not just me ;-))? And did you get criticized a lot growing up?