Praise and criticism: striking the right balance

''But honestly,'' wailed the teen-age trumpeter, ''I don't think I can go on tonight.''

The organist peered at her young soloist. ''Stage fright, Mary?''

''It's just that you said we didn't have to play, if we didn't. . . .''

''Look, Mary,'' the woman interrupted kindly, ''everyone gets jitters before playing in public. It means a player's keyed up, ready to do his best, as I know you'll be doing. Your dress rehearsal yesterday was excellent,'' she added.

''But I. . . .''

The organist smiled reassurance, then turned back to her console and struck a soft chord. The subject was closed.

Mary played her solo as scheduled that evening, and everybody said it sounded fine. But the reason she went through with it, despite a bad case of jitters, was the organist's tactful treatment - a combination of sincere praise and good-humored patience.

Such an incident could have ended quite differently. Impatient reminders that Mary had agreed to participate, or critical comments about future reliability, could cause some teens to dig in their heels. The organist would also have failed if she had used praise too lavishly, with compliments such as ''You're a fabulous musician'' or ''I've never heard such a good trumpet player.'' Instead she stuck to the point, offering helpful encouragement without belittling or praising extravagantly.

Today the skillful use of praise and criticism to smooth parent-child relations and increase harmony in the home seems more important than ever. Parents need not waste energy on crises and confrontations that might have been avoided with more adept handling.

Haim Ginott, author of ''Between Parent and Child'' and ''Between Parent and Teenager,'' defines the goal of all criticism as the solution of a particular problem. Criticism that doesn't accomplish this goal has failed as a tool in family management and should be improved.

In his books Dr. Ginott insists that the following three rules are important when we must criticize:

* Don't attack personality attributes.

* Don't criticize character traits.

* Deal with the situation at hand.

A friend whose son had a mishap with a ballpoint pen followed these rules with good results. Somehow black indelible ink showed up one day, first on his new shirt and jeans, then on the living room sofa. Such apparent carelessness at first made her very upset. How could he not know the pen in his back pocket was leaking? Yet the deed was done. And as she saw him ashamedly scrubbing the sofa, her annoyance subsided.

''Maybe I can get a stain remover for that sofa,'' she finally heard herself say mildly. ''Guess you'll have to save that outfit for fishing.'' She didn't miss his grateful, relieved grin. A thoroughly unhappy time was avoided when she kept her attention on the situation at hand. Handled by this wise parent, only things had been marred, not her child's self-esteem.

This exercise in self-control was not easy, as the mother was quick to admit. The temptation to label her son ''careless'' was overwhelming. Yet a child's concerns are apt to be totally different from an adult's. Neatness, the avoidance of mishaps is something he learns as he grows up. Labeling would be not only false but insulting. No one wants to be labeled for life as a ''bad driver'' because of a mishap behind the wheel, or a ''careless cook'' because dinner gets too well browned.

How do we criticize effectively when criticism seems needed?

Criticism should be thought of as a correctional tool employed as unemotionally as a good coach provides advice to the pitcher taking the mound. He doesn't deal in personalities. He doesn't use recriminations. He criticizes privately, discussing the act, not the person.

The test of effective criticism is whether or not it has positive results, providing the guidance needed to keep a young person on course.

To do this, keep the following points in mind. Practice and use them until they become automatic.

1. Make criticism in private. To do otherwise means loss of face, perhaps canceling the value of the correction.

2. Preface criticism with praise or a kind word. In this spirit we acknowledge the child's efforts to do chores well, his or her usual record of being on time, good report cards in the past. This sets the stage for our son's or daughter's acceptance of our loving suggestion for improvement instead of defense against attack.

3. Keep critical comments impersonal, directed at the act, not the person.

4. Don't expect change to be immediate. Sometimes, especially with teens, a little lapse can be overlooked while a youngster changes gears and is ready to accept our criticism.

5. Tell the child how to do it right. Avoid overemphasizing the mistake by concentrating on how performance can be improved.

6. Use good manners. Ask for cooperation, don't demand it. An implied ''let's work this out together'' is most effective.

7. Criticize an offense only once. Otherwise it becomes nagging. It's better to state clearly what needs improvement, as the coach corrects the pitcher, then forget it.

8. Finish the session on a loving note. Just as it's best to begin with a morale boost, end up in a positive fashion showing faith in a child's willingness and ability to comply.

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