Truth never changes: Praise in public, criticize in private

Yesterday I took my little ones (four and seven) to the Dollar Store.  They each had a dollar from their respective piggy banks and bounced from aisle to aisle trying to decide what to buy.  In the toy aisle, we came across two more children who appeared to be doing the same thing, so I waited while the four kids compared notes.  I spotted their mother, who hung back and looked slightly annoyed.

As we headed to the checkout aisle, I heard the other mother snap, “You aren’t getting anything!”  A shriek filled the store, followed by heartbroken sobs.  The mother, now scowling and shouting, “Unnacceptable!  What’s the matter with you?” pulled her two little ones toward the checkout line.  The rest of us customers did our best to pretend it wasn’t happening.  We dashed out of the store and into the quiet.  I rolled down my minivan windows, and that’s when the mother came out with her still-sobbing son.  It was a busy parking lot, and I watched her expression morph into a sort of indignant how-dare-you-embarrass-me-like-this glare.  I started rolling up my windows, but…

She reached down and shook his shoulders.  “Are you getting anything?!  Are you?!  ARE YOU?!”

(sniff.  sob.)  “No, mommy!”

“Then KNOCK IT OFF.  What is your PROB-”

My windows closed.  Everyone in the parking lot stopped to stare.  The boy looked to be about four.

My mind churned.  Why would she let her kids spend fifteen minutes in the toy aisle when she never intended to buy them anything?  Why the perma-frown?  Buck up, lady.  It’s a beautiful day and you’re standing there like some Oscar/Eeyore hybrid.

But I’ve been there.  I’ve lost my temper.  I’ve yelled when I shouldn’t have.  I have no idea what that woman’s life is like, what she’d been through that day, that year.  I have no right to judge her.  I’ve been guilty of it myself.  No glass houses here.

This event resonated with me (and everyone within a quarter-mile radius), but I hope that woman went home and cried.  I hope she’d be remorseful, which helps lead us to better ways.  I tell her story to drive home the emotional effects of public criticism, though I think hers was unintentional.  None of us is perfect.  It’s the intentional public criticizm that’s the most damaging.

I’ve seen it.  The extreme breaches of PIPCIP, in which a boss denigrates a cringing employee in an open-air office; a puffed-up parent standing by the horrified teenager who’s holding an “I lied to my father” cardboard sign (I thought this was an urban myth until I saw it with my own eyes).  I’ve seen an impatient teacher tell her kindergarten student he’s “acting like a baby” in front of the class.  All of them felt justified.  Their target had it coming.  It’s this kind of public criticizm, this misguided, serves-him-right attitude that is never appropriate.  It’s cruel.

It’s also ineffective.  Those of us who’ve been publicly criticized like this, do we really learn from it?  I mean, we learn it feels horrible but, on the receiving end of  a public tirade, I’d wager we’re so focused on the feelings of embarrassment, the awareness of onlookers, that we don’t hear what’s being said.  For me, it’s like facing an enraged version of Charlie Brown’s teacher.

At times, critizism is clearly necessary, but criticizing in private conveys an unspoken mutual respect, a kindness and grace that compels the recipient to listen, to learn from – maybe even appreciate – what’s being said, rather than evoking the fight-or-flight response, breeding resentment and possibly racking up a future therapy bill.  Criticizing in private is face-saving.  Relationship-saving.  Everyone deserves this dignity – even those of us who screw up repeatedly (like me).

So I say this Truth Never Changes.  No matter what the age brings or how “enlightened” our society becomes, even in the fast-paced, social media saturated times we live in, this one’s a keeper.

What do you think?  Is there ever good cause for public criticism?

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2 thoughts on “Truth never changes: Praise in public, criticize in private

    • Thank you for stopping by. Most people seem to instinctively try to criticize in private. It’s the uptrend in intentional public criticism (read: humiliation) that prompted this post. Seems to me like another form of bullying.

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