Social Skills Series #18: Responding to Positive Advice

Responding appropriately to positive advice (and constructive criticism) is a difficult skill to master. Many of us struggle with it well into adulthood. It’s important that we teach our kids to respond appropriately while they’re young, so that they don’t suffer negative consequences in their social and work lives. No one wants a friend or an employee who can’t take criticism.

Part of teaching kids to take criticism is to give them criticism once in awhile. If they exhibit a behaviour that irritates you or makes your life difficult, try telling them. They might not be aware that what they are doing is annoying or inappropriate. Once they correct their behaviour, they’ve got a success under their belt when it comes to responding to positive advice, and every one of those successes makes it easier to succeed in the future.

Julio is a pretty mature kid. He’s a little erratic, but very present nonetheless. This is the story of the day I gave him some positive advice, he took it, and both of us learned a valuable lesson.

Julio has a wonderful sense of humour and a talent for physical comedy. He’s always joking around, both with his peers and with the adults in his life, and he has made me laugh many times. There was one joke, though, that never made me laugh, but only made me want to throw up my arms, storm out of the room and become a legal assistant.

Imagine him poised to play, his hands hovering above the keys, his back straight, his lips pursed in a mock-intellectual, pretentious expression. He looks at the music book, he takes a deep breath, pauses … and then hammers on the keys, bashing up and down the keyboard in explosive cacophony. Then he stops, just as suddenly as he began.

This was a favourite joke of Julio’s for awhile, and, predictably, each time he did it I simply said “Okay, Julio, that’s enough, let’s get back on task.” Which he would … but usually not until he had done it at least one more time.

Then one day, as he bashed up and down the keyboard, I had a revelation. Julio was a smart kid, and respectful. He wasn’t annoying me on purpose. He was trying to make me laugh. We had known each other for years, and had built a trusting relationship … why didn’t I just tell him?

“Julio,” I said, “That kind of thing, where you’re quiet and still, and then suddenly start moving around and making a lot of noise? I think the other kids your age probably think that’s funny, but I have to tell you: adults hate that.”

“Oh, really?” he said.

“Yes. I promise you, it’s the same for other grownups, not just me. It will annoy them, and they’ll start getting mad at you, even if they don’t say so out loud.”

“Oh. That’s good to know. I didn’t know that.”

That was the end of the conversation, and it was the end of the joke, too. Julio never exploded in a piano lesson again. He has taken my advice, and I think it has done him good. I learned something important, too. I learned that I can speak respectfully to a child who is annoying me, inform them of what the consequences of their behaviour might be, and that they might actually listen. If I keep my exasperation to myself, I will miss out on a potential teaching moment.

Children will do well in life if they know how to behave appropriately with their peers and with adults. That’s what this whole Social Skills article series is about. As social skills go, responding to positive advice is a crucial one, because if kids know how to take feedback about their social behaviour, they will hone their social skills “in the field” so to speak. They’ll learn to be welcomed everywhere and get along with everyone, and their life will be immeasurably enriched.

RECOMMENDED: 101 Ways to Teach Children Social Skills by Lawrence E. Shapiro

Vanessa Farkas is a writer, musician, educator, and lifetime learner who worked at the Phoenix Education Foundation as a music teacher from 2010-2018 and has left to retrain and pursue a new career as a legal assistant. Her eight years at Phoenix have left her enriched with experiences and stories, and this series blends those stories and experiences with practical advice and perspectives on helping children develop social skills. Names have been changed.