One of my children told me recently that he couldn’t ever be a reviewer — of books, art, restaurants, or a sports columnist — because he didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings. (Never mind that just a few weeks before, he gave a dramatic reading of my book’s one-star reviews while I cooked dinner. Ha. Oh yes, ha.)
Of course empathy is a good thing to encourage in kids. But the more I thought about my son’s aversion to critiquing, the more I wondered what it said about his comfort expressing opinion. Sometimes when I ask him to make a preference — choose this favorite over that one, or explain what he doesn’t like and why — he acts like he’d rather pull out a fingernail and dip it in ink quill-style, and write, Just because.
There are outlets for sharing opinions today on just about everything. Anyone with an email address and a wire in the wall can broadcast his or her views on literature or Lysol, and they can also go off on virulent diatribes about total strangers — their appearance and their lifestyle choices, things that have nothing to do with the thing being critiqued. Every frustrated person who’s ever felt disenfranchised, maybe their teachers never listened or their mother never loved them, can bullhorn their power to the world. My kids have seen me blindsided by a few uncomfortably personal reviews. But I don’t want it to inhibit them from learning to put their own views out there.
There are useful and appropriate ways of expressing your opinion, and there are troll ways. But that’s not what I’m talking about here: I’m talking about encouraging young people to have their say in a constructive way with relevant details, even if it means overcoming fear that the person whose work they’re critiquing might see it and be quietly hurt, or loudly disagree.
I visited my son’s English class recently, because his teacher asked me to speak with the students about creative writing. Their small projects are leading up toward workshopping one anothers’ memoirs. Will they be signing their names to their critiques of their classmates? I’m curious. I can see the benefits of doing it — the sensitivity encouraged, the accountability demanded. But I can also see the usefulness of giving the students free rein to explore their reactions to a piece of writing without being paralyzed by the social pressure that is so acute in middle school. Will the critiqued person hold a personal grudge? Will the critic go too easy, afraid of social repercussions?
Still, even as I write that, I know which way I lean. That it’s important to put your name to something, to express it constructively and be willing to stand up to those who might disagree. It takes a certain bravery to state your opinion and put your signature to it. Not a lot of bravery needed to anonymously slam someone’s creativity, or make personal judgments that go beyond the page.
As the writer, this is the risk you take in creating something: you are putting yourself out there. You’re putting your little soapbox up in Speaker’s Corner, telling the truth as you see it, and others can call you out on what they think is baloney or shallow or inauthentic. And when you’re the reviewer, you’re more or less doing the same thing.
I talk a good game here, but in truth, I am very squirmy about commenting on others’ work. It would be hard for me to ever review another author’s book. I get an all-day stomachache when I think I’ve hurt someone, or been misunderstood. But I’m trying to stick my neck in a wider variety of arenas. Stating your opinion is an important skill I want my children to have, and I’m trying to model it.
Criticism, learning to give and take it graciously, is part of being human. Having to state your case persuasively is instructive; it shows your mind to yourself, and teaches you what you really think. If you don’t back up your case enough, academia will deduct points for being vague, and when you can’t back it up in life, people will think your opinions have no backbone. Friends who want substantive feedback on things — it could be a short story or a resume cover letter or an outfit — will respect you and seek your opinion if they know you’re honest. More, if you’re honest with gentleness.
From time to time I give my kids something we call “school of mom” homework (no, I don’t homeschool), usually on a slow bickery summer day. The idea is, Do this offbeat educational exercise, and we all win a cool scavenger hunt or field trip. I’ve decided to ask the older three (the ones who can read and write) to pick a book they’ve read recently in which something bothered them, and write short thoughts explaining why.
I’m looking forward to hearing their reasoning, the things they’d suggest: Will it be something toothless, like, “The dog should have been smaller and less mean,” or something more substantive like, “It doesn’t make sense to me that this character would have made this choice?”
Afterward, I might ask if they would have written the critique any differently if they had to sign their name, and the author would see it. For example, if we decided to mail the letters to the authors, or post the comments on an online book community site. And if they say they would have written it differently — well, I guess that’s the money lesson. Now we move on to the why.