Self-esteem is seen as a cure-all for social problems. We believe that if we give kids high self-esteem, they will withstand peer pressure and be successful. They will resist drugs and alcohol, they won’t bully and they will never be pressured into bad situations. They will stand up for themselves and have clear boundaries and good relationships.
That is true to a point.
But how do you build self-esteem? Often parents see that a lot of praise makes their child happy and they confuse that happiness with high self-esteem. So they keep praising. Unfortunately, that sort of ‘feel good’ self-esteem is not based on solid foundations; the slightest upset can bring it crashing down. Kids with fragile, praise-driven self-esteem don’t bounce back. They end up with limited resources of resilience and grit.
Shallow praise doesn’t lead to healthy self-esteem.
At school, I find myself saying, “Good girl” or “Well done” to kids, almost as a reflex. You might be doing it too. On reflection, is the child actually achieving something worthy of praise or are they just doing what is expected? During junior school reading time, a child is expected to sit quietly and read. At home, they may be expected to make their beds. There are some behaviours that are the bare minimum. You shouldn’t get praise or a certificate for doing the bare minimum. In life, we are expected to turn up!
Santa Maria College psychologist, Jane Carmignani, says, “We don’t always have to feel good about ourselves.” A great deal of life is going through the motions. We are training kids to expect rewards for everything. This can lead to unhelpful arrogance, which is self-appreciation without self-reflection. That doesn’t mean that all praise is bad. It just needs to be focused and purposeful.
Healthy self-esteem comes from the inside, not the outside
Children need to develop an internal locus of control. That means they believe they have some control over what happens to them in life. This allows them to achieve a sense of pride in their own, real achievements. They come to trust themselves and value themselves. Raising kids on praise teaches them that reward and approval come from outside of themselves.
An internal locus of control allows a child to feel capable of change and improvement. Carmignani says, “The inevitable occasional sense of discomfort motivates us to be more than we thought we were.” Having healthy self-esteem doesn’t mean you always feel happy and good about yourself. It means you value and respect yourself.
How to build healthy self-esteem.
Ultimately we need to aim for healthy self-awareness and self-acceptance. This comes through:
- Reflection and daily, realistic assessment of self
- Purposeful praise
- Honest feedback
- Clear goals
1. Reflection and Daily, Realistic Assessment of Self.
With effort and reflection kids will have actual power over their lives, rather than the flimsy illusion of power that praise provides. We are aiming for them to be able to say, “I messed up. That’s okay, but If I want to get better, I need to….”.
Self-reflection is essential to healthy self-esteem, however, it doesn’t come naturally to children. It’s our job to teach a child to reflect and that is best done by questioning. It’s our job to say, How do you think it went today? What did you do well? What do you need to work on?
Delivery is the most important aspect of helping kids reflect. Ms Carmignani says, “It’s all about tone. We need warmth and love and unconditional acceptance, not unrealistic, unconditional praise”.
2. Purposeful Praise
Praise can be powerful when it is specific and honest. When you praise a child for working hard, make sure they actually have worked hard. Otherwise, we lower the bar for them.
Up until they are about twelve, it is developmentally appropriate to praise children just for effort. As children’s brains develop, we need to start looking at their use of process.
As they enter their teens, kids should be starting to question how they are doing things and reflecting on whether or not there should be changes made in order to improve performance. For example, Are their strategies for studying for tests working? Or do they need to reassess and try new strategies for better results? Praise older kids for their effective use of processes and strategies, even if the final product isn’t exactly what they want.
3. Honest feedback
Kids need honest, helpful feedback. The automatic, “Good girl” doesn’t give them anything to work with. Feedback shouldn’t always be about making a child feel good. It also needs to help with development. Talk to kids about things they do well and areas where they can improve. This can all be done in a way that is positive, accepting and loving.
4. Clear goals
Self-esteem comes from a sense of achievement. In order to foster that sense of achievement, it is important that children have clear goals that they are invested in. There is a difference between your goals and your child’s. I saw a very clear example of this with my young nephew.
Jonah is 8. Last year he was deeply invested in becoming Mental Maths Champion in his class. On Awards Night, Jonah was named overall Dux of his class, however, on the phone, he didn’t tell me about that. He told me he had won the Mental Maths medal. That’s what mattered to him, what he had worked towards and what he was proud of. He’s building his self-esteem.
Self-esteem is a worthy goal for us to have for kids, but it isn’t something we can just give them. It must have foundations in personal experience, self-reflection and honest feedback. It must be strong enough to withstand criticism, failure, adversity and the odd, inevitable humiliation. If we can provide guidance in developing that sort of healthy self-esteem, we have given them a great gift for life.
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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single-sex and co-ed. Currently, she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia