How to Build Your Child’s Self Esteem

If you grew up listening to Madonna, you were probably raised during the era of “self esteem.”  Self esteem became a buzz word back in the 80s when our parents were encouraged to build our self esteems with positive praise.  Given the fact that adults thrive on positive praise, this approach makes sense…..and so many of us listened to positive praise, deserved or not, as we stood on the soccer fields or basketball courts.  Our parents, coaches, and teachers cheered for us whether or not we really deserved it, we “won” a ribbon regardless of victory, and most kids made the team regardless of skill……all in the name of self esteem.

Naturally, it was assumed that positive praise would build a child’s self esteem just as it would with an adult.  It may surprise you to learn that children don’t necessarily respond to positive praise in the same way that adults do.  In his book entitled Nurtureshock, Po Bronson outlines this theory very well.  It appears that kids usually dismiss positive praise that is unmerited……in other words, kids can smell a liar from a mile away and begin to question themselves.

Kids whose parents praise them for being “smart” their entire life have a tendency to shy away from challenge.  Why?  A child who hears that he or she is “smart” over and over may begin to fear failure and avoid real challenge.  Any challenge becomes threatening since failure to live up to the “smart” label could bring disappointment or embarrassment.  Girls are more vulnerable to this effect than boys, but that isn’t a big surprise.

Instead, praising a child for “trying” and “focusing” seem to be a better idea.  “Try harder,” or “focus more” both imply your belief in the child’s underlying capabilities, or those that are within the child’s control.  Being “smart” suggests a static quality that is not within the child’s control, leaving some kids feeling helpless when facing a challenge…..but trying harder is something we can all do.

From a professional perspective, this makes sense.  Being told that you’re “smart” without earning that praise might feel great temporarily, but it doesn’t hold up under competition.  Effort and attention are always within our control, and increasing one’s perception of control is the primary way to help a person feel better immediately. This isn’t just my opinion, it’s a well established fact within the field of psychology.

Overall, a child’s level of smartness depends more on effort than anything these days.  The brain changes so significantly throughout childhood that “gifted and talented” testing is worthless during the elementary years.  Those adults who have success in life are generally those who put forth great effort and persevere, not the high school MENSA members.

The take home message?  Set your child up for success in all areas of life.  Set toddlers up for success with reward and games rather than force or punishment.  Set children, especially girls, up for success by involving them with sports early.  Set kids up for success by helping them find and develop their own gifts.  This helps them find their tribe of friends, too, and developing a talent helps us all find our place in the sun.  Sports and music are the best ways to develop self esteem-the immediate feedback of scoring or playing a song are always accurate.

Lavish your child with praise for honest successes.  And never, ever subject your child to “gifted and talented” testing.  What a waste of time and money and afterall, aren’t all of our kids gifted and talented??

That’s all for today, folks.  Self esteem is built, not given.  Remember the story of The Three Little Pigs?  Give your child brick and mortar instead of straw….a house made of straw might blow away when the wind picks up.