In Defense of Praise (Tips for increasing your child’s self-esteem)

There’s a lot of chatter out there about the potential pitfalls of praising our children “too much”. Some are seeking specifics. “When and how often should I praise my child?” Others are weighing in on what they consider to be “the best” parenting style. The truth is, we all have our own style when it comes to parenting. Children are individuals. They have different personalities, strengths, weaknesses, interests, etc. One of the most amazing things about being a parent is that we get to watch these seemingly helpless little beings grow into wonderful children with great ideas and non-stop energy to burn. Sure, we can shame them into following a specific set of standards and, most of the time, they will fall in line like good little soldiers. Why we would we want to? Self-esteem is what helps kids have the confidence to try new things, make new social connections, and take healthy risks. Feeling a sense of belonging enables kids to reach out to other kids in their age group at the park. Feeling capable causes them to try that puzzle independently or zoom down that giant tunnel slide at a new park. Everyday we have a chance to show our kids that we think their ideas are worthwhile just by listening and making eye contact. By showing genuine interest and praising their efforts (not just success) we are helping to build resiliency in our children. There will come a time when they won’t be successful and we won’t be there to pick them up and reset them. But if we praise them and help build their self-confidence along the way, we are leading them down the path toward a lifetime of self-confidence. Children who have high self-esteem aren’t as negatively affected by small “failures” as children who have low self-esteem. They are more resilient and better able to pick themselves up and try again. Riley loves to make new friends at the park. She’s just reached the stage where she eyes another girl and whispers that she would like to play with her. Just yesterday she saw a group of older girls playing and whispered that she wanted to meet them. We did a quick recap of how to make an introduction: “Hi, my name is Riley. What is your name?” and off she went. As it turned out, this particular gaggle of six year old girls weren’t really interested in playing with a four year old. Not all that surprising. Riley looked back at me, defeated. I gave her a big smile and said, “Riley, you did a great job introducing yourself! I’m so proud of you. Let’s see if anyone else might want to play.” Her smile returned and we headed for the swings. I suppose I could have told her to suck it up (or something even less friendly, I overhear some real winning statements at times), but what good would that do? She made a great effort, and that seemed worthy of praise. You know your children better than anyone, so your instinct will tell you when to jump in and praise and when to step back and let them work things out independently. But I think that, as parents, we can all help our children develop a positive self-concept if we are willing to shower them with praise and love regularly. Below are some tips to help you give your child the gift of high self-esteem:

1. Give love: This sounds like a simple one, but sometimes saying, “I love you” is something that we take for granted. Why not tell them how you feel? What’s the downside? I didn’t grow up in an “I love you” kind of family (that’s not to say that love wasn’t shown, it just wasn’t verbalized), but I’m enjoying raising one. I tell them every chance I get. Teaching your kids that you love them no matter what they do is a very important lesson. Riley was frustrated with Liam the other night. She’s actually fairly patient with him, but sometimes he just won’t take no for an answer. In grabbing a toy back from him she accidentally knocked him down and he bumped his head. I redirected her and took him to my room to calm down. She later started to tear up and said, “I’m worried you’re mad at me”. I took the opportunity to sit her on my lap and say, “Riley, Mommy always loves you, no matter what choices you make. But you do have to follow the rules.” Satisfied, she dried her tears and walked away. It’s hard being little. Sometimes they need reminders that they are loved, no matter the circumstances.
2. Praise often: Everybody loves to be encouraged. My day can completely turn around just by getting an encouraging text from my husband! When you praise a good effort made by your child you show him/her that you are proud. This increases your child’s self-esteem, thereby enabling him/her to keep trying. Try to be specific with your praise. Saying “good job” is ambiguous. Saying, “you did a great job sharing your toys with your friend” shows that you are paying attention and encourages your child to repeat that positive behavior.
3. Be a good listener: We’re all busy these days. Whether it’s work, lots of kids, volunteering, etc. life is just busy. Sometimes that means not taking the time to really listen. Since starting this blog and writing for others I am finding that I have to shut off my computer and put my phone out of reach so that I can really listen to my kids. When you stop what you’re doing to make eye contact and really listen to your child, you show him/her that you value what he/she has to say. When you use active listening by asking follow up questions, you teach your child how to communicate. And when they come to you feeling happy, sad, frustrated, etc. use the opportunity to label their feelings and help them learn to identify their own emotions. Listening to your child helps your child feel valued and teaches him/her how to listen to others.
4. Encourage (safe) risk-taking: The fact is that to be successful, you have to be willing to take a risk. Taking risks, of course, lends itself to the possibility of failure. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. Encourage your child to take a ride down that slide he’s been eyeing at the park, ride the bike, make a friend at the park, try a new food, etc. Let them know that you think they can do it and will be there to cheer them on. He might fall off the bike a few times, but you can always be there to help him feel better and praise his efforts. The lesson here is that just giving it a try is the first step toward success. Riley was playing her guitar the other day when she threw it down and said, “I can’t do it like daddy!” We had a chat about how daddy has spent his whole life practicing his bass, and that he does it for a job. But when he started, it was just for fun. And when he realized that he could make a career out of it, he had to practice a lot along the way. He still does.
5. Teach rules: Knowing that rules exist increases the feeling of stability for your child. Despite their tendency to test limits and break rules often, they actually take comfort in knowing that you will follow through on that time out (or other consequence). Have a few established rules in your house and stick to them.
6. Focus on strengths: Try to notice the individual strengths in each of your children, and avoid comparison. Children develop at their own pace; it’s not a race. Telling one child that his brother is capable of something so he should be too only serves to make that child feel like a failure. Avoiding labels (“athlete”, “musician”, etc.) is also a good strategy. Chances are that your child will go through stages; they don’t have to be pigeon holed into athletics just because they can hit a ball. Let them explore various interests and choose their own path. Riley recently learned to say things like “I’m the winner” or “I’m the best” from a particularly competitive friend. We try to avoid this in our house. We try to praise them for their individual strengths and play for fun. We are currently playing a lot of games to work on playing for fun, not for winning. As someone who spent many years playing to win, I can promise you that it’s not actually all that much fun. In fact, it’s kind of stressful.
7. Arrange special time: I know I talk about this a lot. I have a husband who keeps crazy work hours, and sometimes travels a lot, so it’s hard for me to carve out individual time for each kid. I’m always working on it. Giving your child your undivided attention helps him/her know that you think he/she is important. It’s also a great way to connect and really listen. Riley and I went for a long walk and to the park yesterday while Liam and daddy napped. We talked about everything and had 1 ½ hours of uninterrupted playtime. We both returned happy and refreshed. Special time is important for both of you.
8. Work on your own self-esteem: I struggled with low self-esteem from my childhood clear on through college. As a result, I was sometimes afraid to initiate friendships and focused instead on trying to be the best at everything. It took a lot of work to improve my self-esteem, and it’s a pattern I most certainly don’t want my kids to repeat. We are always modeling behavior for our children. If your child sees you beating yourself up over small things, they are likely to repeat that. If all they see is competition and trying to win at all costs, they will probably head down that path. Try to keep your own feelings in check and show them that you feel good about your own efforts in various areas of your life.

High self-esteem is the greatest gift you can give your child. Starting them off on the road to self-confidence can help them live a lifetime of happiness and success. With the risk of labeling myself an “over-praiser”, I say take the time to cheer your kids on, love them out loud, and really listen to them. They will thank you later.

What do you think? Are we giving our children “too much praise?”

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)


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