REALITY CHECK: “How do children construct views of themselves and their place in the world? Children’s social relationships turn out to be critical. For example, children develop higher self-esteem when their parents treat them warmly. But they develop lower self-esteem when their parents lavish them with inflated praise.” – University of Amsterdam, 2017
Praise can boost confidence, empathy, and character or self-absorption and narcissism. That doesn’t mean that children don’t need praise, but we must deliver it the right way. And here is how…
When my two youngest children were preschoolers we had a family trauma: our youngest son, Zach, was the same height as our middle son, Adam. The comments from strangers, “Oh, what cute twins!” were certainly not boosting Adam’s confidence. In fact, his self-esteem was taking a steep nose-dive. Why would any five-year old want anyone to think his three-year old brother was his twin? To help him recognize Adam’s own special qualities, I began focusing on a physical attribute that was uniquely his.
It wasn’t hard, Adam has gorgeous blue eyes are quite unusual in our brown-eyed family. So over the next few weeks I began intentionally complimenting his asset. I did make sure my praise was genuine (this wasn’t hard: the kid really does have beautiful eyes), and I just quietly reminded him of his asset once or twice a day.
“Oh Adam, your eyes are so beautiful.” Or: “We’re so lucky to have a little boy with such pretty blue eyes.”
My husband came on board: “Hey, do you think that great-looking blued-eyed kid of mine wants to shoot some hoops with me?”
His grandparents were brought into the plan, “How’s my Grandson with the gorgeous blue eyes?” Even his brothers began introducing him as “The brother with the great eyes.”
It wasn’t until the first day of kindergarten about three weeks later that I knew Adam really believed our praise. He came home that day literally bouncing.
“How was school, Adam?” I asked.
“Oh, it was so great, Mom!” he said. Without missing a beat he added, “Somebody must have told the teacher about my beautiful blue eyes.”
I paused, a bit startled (I certainly hadn’t said anything to his teacher) and asked, “Why do you think so, Adam?” “Oh, she knows all right,” he explained. “She made sure I sit everyday at the blue table everyday–probably to match my blue eyes!”
And he barreled out the door with a smile that could light the world. I knew then he had recognized another of his great strengths and didn’t need reminding. He’d added another new positive image inside himself forever.
I also discovered a simple way to boost a child’s self-esteem: Identify a legitimate asset or talent in your child that deserves recognition and remind him of that asset until he can remind himself. At that point he’s internalized the positive image.
I’ve since used the same self-esteem building strategy with dozens of children I’ve taught or counseled. I’ve also shared it with hundreds of parents in my workshops over the years. I can’t tell you how often I’ve received an email from a mom saying: “I never believed that tip would work until I tried it. What a difference in made on my child’s self-esteem and behavior.”
Here is how you can use that simple secret to help unlock your children’s awareness of their personal talents and boosting their self-esteem. Just remember to use the secret about a minute a day for at least 21 days to achieve the best results.
Identify Your Child’s Strengths
Take a moment to really think about your child’s strengths, positive traits or assets. Over the next few days list them. Here are a few: artistic, musical, kind, honest, reliable, graceful, organized, friendly, positive, sensitive, courageous, spiritual, loving, sensitive, resilient, persevering, hard-working. My girlfriend decided to keep an ongoing profile of each of her children’s strengths. The leather journal is now a fabulous family keepsake.
Choose 1 or 2 Earned, Positive Qualities or Character Traits to Strengthen
Choose one or two attributes you want your child to recognize about herself right away. Make sure the strengths are already present in your child and are not ones you wish were true about her. Jot down the terms you’ll use you point out the strengths to your child. Use the same term every time you praise the quality.
Praise the Strength Only When Deserved
At the beginning you can start giving one strength messages a day and gradually work your way up to two to four strength reminders. Flooding your child with too many compliments a day is probably not valuable. They begin to lose their effectiveness and become too predictable.
Usually it takes at least three weeks for a new image to develop, so keep praising your child’s strengths for at least 21 days (or as long as it takes until the child internalizes the trait. You’ll know that moment because the child often reminds you of his trait. And you’ll see a change in behavior: he is more confident and doesn’t need your reminders!
Compliment the child only when his actions deserve recognition and you mean it. Children are great at picking up the genuine from the insincere.
Describe Specific Examples of the Strength
Point out examples when your child displays the strength. He may not be able to see these strengths on his own. So, be specific in your praise so your child knows exactly what he did to deserve recognition. And don’t forget to address your child’s character traits (her kindness, his tenacity, her patience, his sense of justice. In a culture that stresses rank, score and grades, character is lying low on our priority lists.
“You are so graceful when you dance. Your hands and body move so smoothly to the music.”
“You’re very artistic; your drawings always have such great details and color combinations.”
“You are so caring. I noticed how you stopped to ask that older woman if she needed help crossing the street.”
Find Opportunities to Nurture the Strength
Now help your child recognize that quality. If your child is artistic, then enroll her in the art class. Get her the extra set of paints and brushes and take her to the museums. If he’s athletic, put him on that soccer team. Children don’t need all those extra activities, so be a bit more selective. Nurture your child’s natural nature. Finding your child’s natural talent, skills, passions, or qualities and then helping him or her develop them is one of the greatest gifts you can give a child. No, the goal isn’t the Olympic Medal or Nobel Peace Prize, but just helping your children recognize their special gifts.
Every child deserves to wake up each morning knowing she is special. By giving the right kind of praise you will not only enhance your child’s strength awareness but also increase his self-knowledge and self-esteem.
It’s a simple but powerful parenting secret, so pass it on.