Let Me Count the Ways: Five Things About Self-Esteem

by Guest Columnist Idie Benjamin

Self-esteem is a good idea. We want children to feel good about themselves, to feel competent, and to have confidence. We want children to be eager learners.

So we praise and praise and praise!! “You are the best!” “Good girl!” “Good job!”

We have the right motivation but the wrong methods. What we end up with is endless cheerleading that is not connected to character or real achievement.

Here are five things to consider about self-esteem:

1. What is self-esteem?

It is knowing in your heart you have value. It is having the confidence to explore, grow, and change. It is the ability to be generous, understanding, and compassionate. You have self-esteem because you know these things about yourself NoT because someone told you so.

Self-esteem does not make you successful. Self-esteem is the result of achievement. You are successful and then you feel good about yourself.

2. Can you have too much self-esteem?

Feeling too good about your self is narcissism. It comes from being told you are great but having nothing to back it up. Unjustified self-esteem leads to not learning to handle frustration or criticism. When deep down, a person suspects her feelings of superiority are built on “quicksand,” there can be super sensitivity to criticism and slights.

“Unearned praise is like breastfeeding with non-dairy creamer. It looks like milk but has no nutrients” (Dan Gottlieb)

3. What should we do?

• Focus on helping children do something deserving of praise.
• Have high expectations. Rewarding when low expectations are met gives the wrong message.
• Don’t praise for doing something expected.
• It is OK to give constructive criticism. Criticize the act not the person.
ª It is OK to set clear, reasonable limits. They lead to a feeling of mastery over behavior.

4. What is ineffective praise?

Children hate, “I’m proud of you.” “Good job!” If you say “good job” to everything, then what was so good about it? “You’re a good boy.” Always?

Ineffective praise can…

• lower self-confidence (“Am I so inept that I need to be constantly told I’m good?” “Am I not loved when I am not succeeding?”
• make it difficult for a child to tell when his work is good and when it is not.
• be a poor reward. Children don’t learn to judge their actions themselves and can become dependent on others’ evaluations.
• lead to avoiding risk and creativity.
• pressure children to be perfect.

5. What is effective praise?

The most effective parents and teachers limit praise.

Part 1 – Effective praise is encouragement.

• It is real. It is genuine. It shows the child you really know him/her as an individual.
• It promotes curiosity not self-esteem. When someone is taken seriously, she/he will become more serious and learn to deal with set-backs.
• It helps children develop an appreciation of their own behavior and achievement.
• It focuses on the learning task and not on behavior. It allows children to admit when something is difficult.
• It is private. Public praise leads to comparisons and competitions.
• It is specific. It avoids labels and interpretations. It focuses on the effort, on the process as well as the product. It points out progress.

NOT – “Good job!”
BUT – “I notice that…” “You worked a long time on this.”

It is also: “I understand. I know it is hard.” “I think you can handle it.”

Part 2 – What should you do?

• Watch the “teacher voice.” Don’t gush or use overenthusiastic, overworked phrases.
• Don’t ignore failure. It is not shameful to make mistakes. If work is not up to par, give input as to what needs to be changed or worked on.
• Be honest and real.
• Say “thank you.”

Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, As, Praise, and Other Bribes