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Curing a Critical Spirit in Students

I recently met with an informal focus group of educators from colleges and universities in the Midwest. My sole purpose for the conversation was to get a read on how the school year went, as well as what they had learned as educators.

One common theme emerged from our discussion: incoming criticism.

Every one of these deans, provosts, directors, faculty members and coaches had stories to tell about how much their students had criticized others. From freshmen to seniors, these students seem to constantly find fault with the classes, residence halls, administration, sports programs (both intramurals and intercollegiate athletics) and, of course, the food they were “forced” to eat. The adults saw, in fact, a “critical spirit”in many of their students. One professor said it was as if the students were getting paid to complain and critique the campus.


photo credit: danielfoster437 via photopin cc

Obviously, constructive criticism is healthy in appropriate dosages. Each of us can learn from our end-users and discover how to provide a better experience for them. However, I think I smell a rat. As Growing Leaders partners with schools each year, we have witnessed an increasing number of students who carelessly criticize programs, ideas and institutions. We are discerning a critical spirit among young Millennials.

Why is this happening?

Even the students I interview acknowledge a growing sarcasm and critical edge in themselves. So why is criticism on the rise today? Let me suggest some reasons:
Students are conditioned to judge.
We ask them to. From Reality TV shows to opinion surveys, we beg them to share their opinion, whether it’s informed or not. No wonder they’re critics.

They’ve been given so much by parents, schools and teams. 
Many of them have been provided for so well that they feel entitled to more. As a result, they feel obliged to criticize when the provision isn’t what they want.

They’ve been furnished with high expectations, as special and gifted.
Many middle class kids grew up with high expectations, because they’ve been told they are special and gifted. They expect a good return for their presence.

They’re pushed to compare their lives on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.
Nearly all of them grew up using social media–which is a source of jealousy. They compare clothes, vacations and friends. It invites them to hide and criticize.

They mask their own insecurities through critiquing others’ flaws.
Psychologists use the term, “high arrogance, low self-esteem.” Often, criticism is a cover for insecurity: if I judge others, I may avoid being judged myself.

They feel they appear more intellectual and savvy when they criticize.
Criticizing others tends to furnish a feeling of superiority in teens. When we critique, we at least look like intellectuals. This is en vogue for students.

The irony of our day is this: we may have produced the most critical kids in modern history, but also ones who cannot take criticism themselves. Many faculty members and employers tell me how little it takes for a young person to spiral downward emotionally when they receive a little criticism on an assignment. We have created little monsters–kids who harshly judge others but are fragile themselves.

Cures for a critical spirit
So let me offer some common-sense ideas for what we can do to reduce this critical spirit and develop young adults with a healthy sense of reality. My hope is this list will enable you to equip students to practice critical thinking without being critical:

1. Cultivate gratitude on a regular basis.
A growing number of schools are assigning students to keep a gratitude journal, where they acknowledge the people who made their life better. It’s difficult to be critical or angry AND grateful at same time.

2. Discuss self-awareness and self-management.
Often a critical spirit can be the result of low self-awareness. Students may have no idea they are guilty of the very traits they condemn. It’s the proverbial problem of the log in our own eye, and the result of low emotional intelligence.

3. Don’t allow criticism without a solution.
This one will cure critics quickly. When I worked with John Maxwell, he had a rule: you can’t bring a problem to him without some ideas to solve it. It’s easy to spot problems. Critics are a dime a dozen. But critical thinking helps them see solutions.

4. Demonstrate the value of diversity.
Often we criticize when we don’t see how helpful diversity of perspectives, ethnicity or gender can be. Social scientists tell us we’re wired to assume that different means worse–even pre-school aged kids show this. Work to show that different is beautiful.

5. Help them learn to evaluate objectively.
One prescription for incessant criticism is to help students evaluate situations well. When they learn to think deeply, not superficially, they begin to see a reason behind a choice or behavior that originally looked worthy of judgment.

6. Enable them to be a good-finder.
Challenge them to become a good-finder. This means, within the first 30 seconds of meeting someone new, or engaging in a new situation, locate something positive or redemptive about it. This helps produce a better attitude in all of us.

Any additions to this list?

Looking to develop life skills in students? Check out

Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes



  1. Melissa Antieau Dubiel on June 5, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Thank you very much for shedding some light on this subject. I appreciate your practical solutions to what I view as a tremendous problem. Tremendous is a strong word, but please allow me to share why I use it. I hardly know where to start so I will start here. Judging or criticizing other people does not allow us to form the bonds in life that we are meant to form. Critical behavior, in my opinion, keeps us seperated in two ways. The first way being that we cast out another person creating a barrier between us and that person. The second, and I believe quite possibly a more damaging effect is that when we judge others, we believe that we will also be judged harshly in return because we have a natural tendancy to view others as we view ourselves. If we are overly critical, then we believe others are overly critical of us as well. This perpetuates a cycle. We judge, so we feel judged, so we judge some more until we have backed ourselves into a corner of misery and isolation. Isolation begins an entirely new problem that has many destructive tangents and so this is why I use the word tremendous. I believe being overly critical, if widespread, has the potential to drive our society, and our children, now more than ever into a cave of isolation where people are unable to love or empathize on ANY level with others. It’s a scary thought, but a concern I have for the future. My solutions in my home a simliar to what you have expressed; be grateful, find the good in others, reflect but do not condemn through the knowlege that we all have gifts and we all have shortcomings and blessed is the person who can find the gift in each person. “Mind your business” is another one I like. Often we criticize another person when their actions do not affect us in any way, so any time spent being critical is wasted minutes of our precious time, time that should be spent tending to, or minding our own business. A quote from a bag of tea I purchased once said, “Recognize that the person you see is you”. This spoke to me. In moments of being overly critical it reminded me that my agitation with anothers perceived shortcoming may just be that I identify with it- further proving to me that I ought to stop looking outward, and continue looking inward. There is probably not a way to be both critical and happy at the same time, so I choose happiness. So for me, last but not least – is choice. I choose not to be critical because I know it is destructive. I choose empathy instead because I know it breeds love. Thank you again, Tim for posting this, and so many other worthwhile topics, and for giving me a place to express my heart. Thank you!

  2. Joshua Beers on June 6, 2014 at 9:30 am

    Thanks Tim for a challenging article with practical solutions to strengthen my family and the students I serve.

  3. Michelle McDonald on June 7, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    Thanks so much for addressing this unfortunate attitude that I too have observed with dismay when working with teens (my son is 13 and I volunteer to help with many of his activities). This is such helpful advice for productively “countering” the excessively critical attitudes, and I will start using it immediately. I read your blogs daily and find them so thoughtful and useful.

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Curing a Critical Spirit in Students