As parents, we want our children to have confidence but not conceit. That is, we want our children to monitor the outcomes of their behaviors realistically, to be polite and considerate of others, but retain a sense of self that is positive and assured. I believe the mistake parents often make is thinking that constant praise of a child is the route to self-confidence. It is an easy mistake to make, especially in a society in which so much emphasis is placed on making our children feel loved and building feelings of self-worth.
I, like most new parents, constantly praised my oldest child for everything she did from swinging at the park without falling to reading a stop sign as we drove to preschool. But the problem with that is that excessive praise may create unrealistic expectations for the child when they are in the “real world” where people do not praise them all the time. I did not realize that for my daughter this was creating tremendous pressure to be successful at everything she did. Conversely, some children who hear constant praise at home may feel confused or dejected when others are not as enthusiastic about their feats and develop a fear of failure.
A young client of mine, whose mother worked very hard to build self-confidence in her children by praising them continuously, developed a host of voice problems associated with stress in elementary school. I have worked with other children who developed a “need” for constant praise that affected their ability to enjoy competition if they could not win.
Since a large component of human brain maturation involves increased self-awareness and improved capacity for self-monitoring of behavior, parents have the opportunity to be instrumental in helping a child develop this advanced skill. By encouraging self-appraisal that is realistic while avoiding being overly judgmental, parents help their child build confidence.
Instead of constant praise, parents can try to use praise more naturally to encourage behaviors the parent believes are worthwhile or beneficial. Statements like, “I like the way you shared your toys today” or “You seemed to be having a lot of fun on the climber, do you feel like you are getting better at that?” may help a child learn to value effort and progressas well as to self-evaluate.
It is important to remind ourselves that to adequately develop the ability to monitor our behavior we have to understand mistakesas well as achievements. It is very difficult for a parent to watch a child fail at something, but as adults most of us are well aware that some of the best lessons we had as we grew up came from our failures, as rough as they may have been at the time.
Building your child’s self-esteem ultimately will help them succeed in endeavors both in school and in life. One of the most important jobs for parents is to help your child successfully through life’s challenges and successes, help them feel good about themselves along the way, and learn to accept mistakes as an opportunity to do better next time.