Many parents are very concerned about their child’s self-esteem, and believe that a big part of their job as parents is to protect it. But very often what happens instead is that children are protected from challenges and from the possibility of failure, and so they never have a chance to develop true self-esteem.
If every scribble is highly praised and put on the refrigerator, why work on drawing? If Dad confronts the coach to get more playing time, why work on basketball? If Mom argues with the teacher about grades, why study harder?
The message we’re really giving our kids when we do these things is that they aren’t good enough to make it on their own – that they need their parents to run interference for them. It’s awfully hard to grow up if that’s what you believe.
We’re talking here about thinking for the long-term rather than the short-term: “What difference will it make when he’s thirty?” Children develop true self-esteem when they meet challenges, master new skills, and earn appreciation from adults outside the family as well as from parents
When parents protect their children and give false or exaggerated praise, they think they’re building self-esteem, but actually they’re doing just the opposite.
Kids really hate false praise anyway, and they can spot it a mile away. It’s best to let your children learn about their strengths and weaknesses while you’re there to help them over the rough spots. Your confidence that your children can solve problems and learn new skills is what allows them to develop self-esteem.
I can tell you that, as a parent, letting my children fight their own battles and overcome their own obstacles is something that is still very hard for me. I want everything to be good and right for them, and I worry all the time that they’ll make a bad decision or miss an opportunity or not get what they deserve from life. But when I interfere and keep life’s lessons at bay, I’m making it even more likely that they will make bad decisions and miss opportunities. Children learn about life from living their life, and they earn self-esteem from the way they handle those lessons.
Parents do have an important role when it comes to self-esteem, other than providing opportunities and support. Their role is to make sure that their children are rewarded for their progress as much as for their product.
In other words, hard work, determination, persistence, and a “personal best” should be celebrated as much as getting good grades, passing tests, and getting recognition.
So when you have a child who struggles in school, make sure that you reward his progress and his accomplishments – even the small stuff. And when you have a child who is capable of high achievement in school, don’t reward him for anything less than that high achievement. Schools measure all kids with one yardstick – whether or not they have learned the skills they’re supposed to learn at that grade level. Parents can measure their children with a personal yardstick – they can reward a child’s individual progress and personal victories even if that child’s skills aren’t on grade level.
So we can’t give our children self-esteem – we can’t just hand it to them. Rather, we have to give them as many opportunities to develop self-esteem as we can. Our gifts to our children are the opportunities and the support, and those are gifts that will last a life-time.