Since my television interview last week was short and sweet, I wasn’t able to elaborate on 4 ways parents can support healthy self esteem. It’s impossible to cover “self esteem” in 5 minutes! So I’m going to write a bit more information and ideas and separate them into 4 posts. This one covers the first point which I briefly explained on the TV interview.
Encouragement versus Praise
In my book, I dedicate a chapter to this topic. Many folks think that encouragement and praise are the same thing. They really are not, and knowing the difference and how to use each one is important to building self esteem in children.
Handing out praise is like handing out a Pop Tart to your child. “Good job!” is easy and quick to say and a feel-good moment. It gives the parent and child a “sugar buzz” with no lasting value. I assert this because if we merely wait for the child to do something good and evaluate the end result, we are using a value judgement or what we think of the child, not what the child is thinking of himself.
“I’m so proud of you. Way to go!” is focusing on my feelings, how I esteem the child, not how he esteems himself. It removes the opportunity for the child to assess his or her own worth and effort. If we only use praise without encouragement, we risk raising sugar junkies on a steady diet of praise.
We live in a world that artificially reinforces worth. Social media is a platform to praise and judge the value of others. Those who use social media will look to others as a measure of worth: how many “likes” or followers they have. How many comments on their selfie. They constantly check their devices to see how others have commented on their new hair style, or outfit, or body. Praise junkies.
How many times have you seen a child with an immature self esteem who runs to her parent with (fill in the blank) and says, “Mommy look at what I did. Do you like it???” They don’t know if it’s good until they hear the words from their parent’s mouth.
Encouragement, on the other hand, uses self reflection, like holding up a mirror to that child and asking, “What do you see?” If your child comes to you with school grades, parents will often praise, “Wow, all A’s. Good job” without taking the time to ask the child how he or she feels about the grades, or more importantly, the effort they put into earning the grades. An encouraging parent will stop and ask instead, “Look at these grades. How do you feel about them?” I don’t know about you, but I worked super hard for some B’s in my life and was really proud of myself.
I’m sure a parent wouldn’t want to reward a child if she found out later the child cheated or procrastinated for those A’s. She would be reinforcing bad behavior through meaningless praise. If we consider encouragement more often, we recognize how it’s better to reinforce the good behavior that earned them the grade.
Encouragement means we take the time to notice the effort along the way rather than waiting until the end to give high fives. It’s much more involved parenting and helping the child to recognize her or his worth that is independent from us.
So is praise bad? No! Just consider the added dimension of encouragement in building self esteem. Encouragement has lasting value because it is built from within. It’s authentic and individual. It causes parents to stop more often to notice the good progress and character traits like determination and team work. Not everyone can kick the winning soccer goal or be voted Student Body President, or gets all A’s. But everyone has capacity to build character traits that endure after the applause ends. So point out along the way what you see your child doing such as having good sportsmanship or determination. And when they are first to cross the finish line, that’s great, too.
Here’s an example of how praise and encouragement can work together to build self esteem. Every parent struggles to teach their children to clean their room (At least I think that’s the case. If you don’t, then I’d love you to share your Jedi mind tricks with me). After you have taught your child how to clean properly, you can let go and be more of a support figure. You stop by their room and ask, “How’s it coming along?” You remind them how to break down the task into manageable pieces. You encourage them to look around and see what they’ve accomplished so far. Then, when it’s done, you can high five them with lavish praise. “You did it!” And I would add: “How does it feel to work so hard and have such a clean room?”
I hope you got some insight into this first tip of building self esteem in children. I’ll be posting Part 2 next.