Feeling Good About Myself

By Michael

There was a story in the paper last week about self esteem. It’s not pretty, even though all the children interviewed are very pretty. And bright. And incredibly talented.

For those of you who missed the story, it turns out that the self esteem movement might not be as beneficial as promised and—I hope you’re sitting down as you read this—simply telling our kids how wonderful they are isn’t always a good idea. Sometimes, high praise without achievement leads to smugness and sloth, rather than inspiration and effort.

Who knew?

Well, actually, we all knew. We all know. It’s important to praise our children when they excel, to look for things they’re doing right. It’s foolish to praise them when they don’t excel, because we simply dilute the value of that currency. If we praise them for everything—Look who picked her nose all by herself. You did. Oh yes!!.—we undermine our own role as arbiters and mentors.

It’s a balancing act, every day, to protect and encourage our children while basing their expectations and perceptions in reality. All we have going for us are good intentions, love and the lessons of our own experience. And trust. Everything depends on them trusting us enough to believe what we say. As the self esteem movement metastasized, lots of parents lost that trust by promising achievement and offering praise beyond reality.

Reading the article, though, I realized that it’s not simply the theory that’s flawed. As is often the case, implementation has been a major source of problems. The idea was to encourage through praise, the make children feel they are good enough and capable enough to achieve their goals. Properly implemented, this kind of guidance takes time and sensitivity from involved parents and teachers.

And who has time for all of that? Nobody.

So, instead of finding opportunities to encourage, we started giving them trophies for showing up. Instead of taking the time to develop their math skills, we gave them all A’s and called it a day. Instead of insisting that they finish what they started, we told them they were right to quit in the middle and find a new challenge that was worthy of them.

Along the way, we let them down. We didn’t make them better at dealing with life’s challenges. We hid the challenges from them. We didn’t work with them to overcome obstacles. We removed the obstacles from their paths. Mostly, we failed to prepare them for the coach or college or employer or teacher who cared more about reality than self esteem.

I’ve always been a little stingy with praise, which has bothered me quite often as the girls were growing up. After reading the news story, though, I feel much better about my leanings and my parenting. That’s important, because my self esteem really needed a boost.


Michael Rosenbaum is 5 Minutes for Parenting’s first dadblogger. He is a business consultant, playwright and author of Your Name Here: Guide to Life.

Michael blogs on life issues at Your Name Here Guide to Life and manages the Adult Conversation discussion group on Linked-In.

5 Responses to Feeling Good About Myself
  1. Christie
    July 6, 2010 | 12:36 pm

    My three year old daughter’s favourite thing to say is, “good job!” I hear it often when she and my seven year old daughter are playing together.

    That said, I agree that the best formula for self esteem is actual accomplishment. Encouraging our seven year old to see challenges through to their completion without quitting or succumbing to the lure of TV or the computer screen is a huge challenge for my husband and I, but it’s worth it to see the result — a new confidence in tackling the next challenge that comes along.

    Hope you don’t take this as empty praise, but good job on this post!

  2. edj
    July 6, 2010 | 2:22 pm

    I’ve been living overseas and raising my kids in the French system, which worries not about how children feel but about absolute standards. Ironically, my son has always needed us giving him perspective to lower his self esteem! A touch of reality maybe.
    I’ve been looking at American schools and was shocked and discouraged to read the following principal’s statement: “C Middle School is committed to instilling an appreciation of self, a respect for others, and a love of learning in young adolescent.” Yes, this is perfect. This is why America lags behind all other industrialized nations in math, science, and geography–it’s because our students don’t LOVE THEMSELVES ENOUGH!!!!
    Great post.

  3. Michael
    July 6, 2010 | 10:35 pm

    If all of you made me feel better about myself, I’d be much more rich and successful. My failure is your fault, but try not to feel too guilty about it.

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