Self-Esteem for the New Generation
"You're so smart!"
"You're perfect in every way!"
"You're the most brilliant kid in your class."
"You are a superstar in football."
"You're artwork is beautiful! I love it!"
"I love how you keep your room clean!"
These statements are innocent enough and they've been said by most, if not all parents at some time or another. You might still say them today...and you wouldn't be alone. Far from it. But do those statements actually build self-esteem? The research says "no".
Years ago, a friend was disheartened when she read an article online, admonishing parents for lavishing praise on their children, only to have it backfire. Say what? What in the world is a parent to do? Too much praise? Too little praise? How do we get this just right? All this back and forth might make us feel a bit like we've been inserted into the Goldilocks and the Three Bears story. Yikes!
So, How Do We Promote Self-Esteem?
Here's a start (and an excerpt from a previous post on self-esteem)
"What we can do is provide an environment in which every child feels loved, nurtured, listened to and important. We can help them learn to handle life's little upsets and disappointments and not try to sweep their feelings under the carpet or tell them to "forget about it", as we hand them a chocolate chip cookie."
Responsive care and love provided to infants and young children is a foundational need for all children and it provides the roots of self-esteem. This is why the early childhood years are so important to our well-being across the lifespan. Things that happen to us in the pre-verbal years are encoded at the cellular level and become part of our stories about ourselves. We truly cannot love a baby too much. Every thing we pour into them is a building block for their future.
In essence, how our parents treat us starts laying the groundwork for what we think about ourselves, what we believe about ourselves and how we feel about our place on the planet. Read more about this in How Self-Esteem is Born.
Okay, so we can't love a baby too much, but we can inundate kids with too much praise?
Yes! (Go here to find hundreds of articles on the topic.)
You know how toddlers like to help us in the kitchen, with the laundry, and with just about every other thing we do? Yes, it takes twice as long, and yes it would be easier to do it ourselves...but when we support and allow them to do things that are new, with our loving guidance and presence, then...in those moments...self-esteem is born.
See, kids start to feel good about themselves and their capabilities when they can rise up to every challenge. When they accomplish something on their own. When they have a sense of self-efficacy. They know they are capable and strong in their bones...because they did something or accomplished something new and challenging. They contributed. They were active "doers" in this thing called life.
We can help kids continue to keep building on that...by encouraging them to push themselves outside of their comfort zones and doing things that are hard to do. Let every child's mantra be, "I Can Do Hard Things." It's a saying I've thought of plastering on the inside of my office door, so that every child who leaves a session has that thought on their mind as a parting gift.
Conquering the Confusion
Parenting is delightful. It's also a challenge. If we read the advice of 10 experts, we'll likely get 10 different answers. Ultimately, we have to decide what resonates with our own inner compass...take what applies and let the rest fly. Be familiar with the research, but approach with a critical eye. Be open to change.
But, back to the issue of praise and self-esteem. The bottom line is, kids don't gain self-esteem by us handing it over to them. Nope. Not even close. We cannot give it away. It must be earned. Kids gain self-esteem by DOING HARD THINGS. By rising every time they fall. By experiencing the tough feelings of life and having a loving, supportive person on the sidelines to cheer them on and encourage them to keep trying even when the going gets tough. In the long run, that's far more meaningful than a quick, "You're so smart!"
Want more on self-esteem? Read this post, which went viral shortly after going live. It's been a crowd favorite.
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Wendy Young, LMSW, BCD, is the founder of Kidlutions and co-author of BLOOM: 50 Things to Say, Think and Do with Anxious, Angry and Over-the-Top Kids. She is the creator of numerous workbooks and resources to help from the preschool through the teen years.
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