Parents often worry about their children's self-esteem, and try to find a balance between being too stingy with praise and overdoing it. As it turns out, we may want to help our children have a realistic view of how they are seen by others. Over-inflating self-esteem, as in “everybody gets a trophy,” may set your youngster up for a crash when they hit a rough patch down the road.
In Sue Shellenberger's recent Work and Family column in the Wall Street Journal (2/27), the journalist gives a practical update on current studies and thinking about the relationship between parental encouragement and developing solid life skills. As it turns out, high self-esteem is more a result of good performance than a cause. Overdoing it on the parental encouragement can make a child feel worse when things don't go well.
Mark Leary is a professor of both psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, who determined from his studies that children as young as 8 years old tend to have their self-esteem level fluctuate based on feedback from their peers about their likability and attractiveness. While children always need to feel loved and valued, Dr. Leary believes it's quite alright for children to feel poorly about themselves for a bit if they are behaving in ways that are mean, selfish, or generally not going to be adaptive in later life. We want to help our children create a positive, but also realistic, view of themselves.
I found it interesting that a study of 313 children, ages 8 to 13, published this February in the Journal of Experimental Psychologyfound that parents can do harm to their children’s self-esteem when pumping them up too much. The children can feel shame later when they experience frustration and defeat.
Research studies show that helping children have a realistic perspective about themselves is helpful. When researchers tried to inflate self-esteem of college students with flattery in a 2007 study published by the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, the college students’ grades worsened. Researchers proposed that the students’ inflated self-esteem may have made their attitudes more cavalier, causing them to study less, and resulting in dropping grades.
Here are some tips for parents about finding the right balance with encouragement:
1. Focus on the effort the child is putting in, not the grade or result.
2. Empathize when your child is struggling or having a rough time with something (academics, friends, a sport). You may want to share something age-appropriate that you struggled with, but hung in there and persevered.
3. Encourage your child to look at how others (his team, etc.) will see his or her behaviors, or other long-term positive outcomes in life, work, and relationships for doing the right thing.
4. Emphasize character-building choices.
5. Don't give up or encourage your child to give up. Don't predict future doom, as in “You will never succeed in life if you don't try out for Junior Lifeguards.”
6. Praise things that are sustainable, like effort on homework, rather than straight A’s.
Parents of children of all ages, go out there and give some encouragement this week. Build that resiliency, notice that effort, shine a light on the improvements, and focus on your child's creating a healthy and realistic view of him or herself. You can do it!