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Praise: a Sweet Destroyer of Self-Esteem in Children

An excellent article, "Yep, Life'll Burst That Self-Esteem Bubble,"* eloquently outlined some of the flaws in the self-esteem movement that originated in the '70s and '80s.  This topic caught my eye because I work every day with many very sincere and eager parents and observe how the building blocks of self-esteem often elude them. In one of my latest coaching sessions, we talked about how self-esteem is constructed and the difference between external and internal motivation.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Giving encouragement effectivelyOne of the myths about developing healthy self-esteem in children is that it is important to use praise. It was once thought that the more praise, the higher the self-esteem. However, we're now reaping the results in a generation of sugar-coated kids, and it's not pretty. The data shows that the generation raised with loads of praise is lacking confidence, accountability, and competence. They have difficulty with constructive feedback, and they often struggle with self-entitlement and blame. And a very large majority of these young adults are not even hiring material. Sad but true.

Why Praise Leads to People Pleasing

So why isn't praise effective in building self-esteem, as originally thought?

Let's define praise first. The dictionary says praise is "the act of expressing approval or admiration." The key word here is "approval." If a child is looking to please someone or to get approval from a parent or teacher, they focus on external adulation. Every adult wants slightly—or drastically—different things from a child, and different behaviors will please them. One parent may value speaking up for themselves. Another might think politeness or kindness is more important. One teacher may want creativity and critical thinking, while another just wants the kid to follow the instructions to a T.

Hmm. What a quandary if a child is looking to find the right combination to please everyone!

Deep dive: "3 Hidden Parenting Mistakes that Promote People-Pleasing Behavior in Children.'

Praising children teaches children to look for approvalA child trying to please others will become an adult who is good at reading and pleasing others—"a people pleaser"—but not someone who is genuinely happy. Why? Because the child's attention is focused on approval from the outside, even at the expense of what the child feels or what is important to them.

The more children and teens learn to face out and lean toward others to affirm themselves, the less secure their self-esteem becomes. If children's attention is captivated by continual external approval and rewards as they develop, they lose their internal compass to be happy and fulfilled. Waiting for their next dose of praise pulls their attention away from becoming aware of what feels right for them inside. Seeking approval habitually from the outside deteriorates approval from the inside.

Praise also interferes with developing their natural abilities—they are too busy pleasing everyone around them. (Unless of course they decide to rebel, which is the topic for my next's month article.) When children don't experience their impact as a result of their own unique passions, talents, gifts, and contributions, they miss out on the natural enfoldment of intrinsic rewards and well-earned results: measured value and success, competence, meaning, and connection.

Related reading: "Why You Should Stop Being a People Pleaser"

Too Much Praise Is Like a Drug

Another difficulty arises when parents attempt to give daily praise on their child's behalf. Their praise can be shallow and trite. Comments such as "Good boy/girl!" "Great job!" or "Awesome!" are common. Adults' praise is often too general, like these examples. It gives the child or teen no concrete information that they can use to repeat an effective action, improve a skill or behavior, or learn something about themselves and the world. As a result of praise, children have no new or helpful information to help them navigate through life successfully. Praise may feel good, but the feeling that comes from this approval gives little or no actionable value to the child or teen. It becomes an addiction.

Roasting-coffee-000078149685_Large.jpgIt's like caffeine. Coffee may give you a great boost, but the more you drink it, the more you want it, and the less you can start your day without it. Just like caffeine, the more children drink up praise, the more they rely on it to feel good about themselves and to motivate themselves.

Perhaps the most confusing kind of praise for a child is the praise motivated by a parent's desire to make up for a criticism flung out in a careless moment or a negative experience the parent had with the child or teen. In this situation, praise is often insincere and only a reaction coming from the guilt a parent is feeling because of an unsupportive interaction. Let's explore this through a possible scenario:

You just picked up the children from school after a long day at work. You skipped lunch to get a big project done, you cut sleep the night before to finish a costume that one child needed for a play, and you have unpaid bills pulling at you. Your children are fighting and begging you to play with them. But you know there's nothing in the fridge at home to cook for dinner, so you take them to the grocery store instead. As you're paying for the groceries and realizing dinner will be late again, your five-year-old has a complete meltdown.

Encouragement helps a child to be pleased with himselfWith all the patience you can muster, you bend down and make a threat under your breath: "Be quiet right now or you're not going to your friend's birthday party tomorrow." The child reluctantly settles down, and you get to the car where you totally lose it. "Why can't you kids just behave?"

After dinner, when things have calmed down and you have balanced your blood sugar with a good meal, the guilt starts rolling in. As you go to sleep, your harsh reaction eats away at you. You resolve to do better tomorrow. The next day as the previously reprimanded child sits down at the breakfast table, you smile and say, "You're such a good boy!" He has no idea what you're talking about or why he is a good boy. That's praise.

Are you beginning to see the problem with praise addiction? Let's learn how to give meaningful feedback to our children instead.

For detailed ingredients on how to give encouragement, see "How to Give Effective Feedback to Children." 

Productive and encouraging feedback is thoughtful and specific; it usually engages the child in introspection. Encouragement creates dialogue between you and your child or teen, which as an added bonus strengthens the relationship. This kind of feedback not only builds healthy and authentic self-esteem but also creates strong, confident young adults who desire to contribute to the world.

With meaningful feedback and encouragement, a child can repeat specific actions that create excellent results in the future.

Skill can be improved and a child can actively increase success by the amount of effort and focus they apply in each situation. The repetition of internally focused attention creates a lasting sense of self that is independent of other people's responses. The child or teen, not another person, has control over the results they create. Children strengthen the muscles of their individualization and learn to follow their unique inspirations, desires, and dreams.

*The original 2005 article mentioned above, "Yep, Life'll Burst That Self-Esteem Bubble," by Sharon Jayson of USA TODAY, has since been archived.

For more on visionary parenting or support and helpful tools in your parenting, feel free to explore all the great resources at Heartmanity.com.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Parent CoachJennifer A. Williams / Parent Coach
Jennifer is the Heartmanity Founder and a parent coach and behavioral consultant with two decades of experience. She is a Parent Instructor and Instructor Trainer for the International Network of Children and Families and author of several parenting courses, including How to Bully-Proof Your Child and Hacking the Teen Brain. Jennifer is happily married and a mother to 3 fantastic grown children.

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