A recent post on Circle of Moms got me thinking. The article deals with the potential harmful side effects of praising our children. In our day and age, where there is so much focus on the necessity of good self esteem in children (and adults), an article like this can often be viewed with suspicion or even outright cynicism. However, it makes a good point: too much meaningless, non-specific praise can confuse children and diminish the value of the praise itself.
I know I would love to hear, over and over, that I am clever/valuable/beautiful etc. But I also know that when I do hear those things, the words have a profound effect on me, and I treasure the moment for a long time.
When Goldilocks was a baby, she actually thought her name was “Gorgeous”. When she went to preschool for the first time, she didn’t know who the teacher was talking to when she was called by her real name. We had to teach her to respond to her own name, and the word “gorgeous” really didn’t have much meaning for her. Even though we felt it was true, how do you explain the concept of gorgeousness to a one-and-a-half year old, to whom it has no more meaning than Fred or Georgia?
That set me thinking. I want my children to be confident and secure, but with good reason. I want them to do their best, and I began to realise that lavishing praise on what I know is a mediocre effort on their part, is actually extremely counter-productive. For one thing, they feel no drive to perform at their full potential, since any effort at all receives abundant recognition. Secondly, not receiving abundant recognition for any effort (even the poorest) cause exactly the lack of self esteem and confidence I’ve been trying to avoid!
Since I’ve been home educating my darling daughters, I can no longer praise every effort. Praising extremely messy handwriting, poorly composed stories, or unfinished arithmetic result in below-par students who will, ultimately, lack the important skills needed t0 do well in college and later on, in life. I now see more clearly how damaging it has been to do so in the past, too. I’ve had to unlearn a lot of bad habits, and encourage the girls to understand that their best efforts receive the best rewards. Mediocre efforts are appreciated (more than no effort at all, you see), but when I know they can do better I need to be honest with them.
We have tried more and more, as they get older, to be specific in our praise. So for instance, a very messy colouring picture may still demonstrate good use of line or great application of colour. I would say that (in those terms). Now, as teacher as well as parent, I will take it further, by taking the time to demonstrate how it could be improved. An interesting result has been seeing each child take the time to make the suggested improvements herself. When she then sees the results of her efforts, she knows she has done better. She is satisfied.
In fact, so much of the praise we have given in the past has fallen flat and even contributed to increased insecurity, because they knew the work could be improved but lacked the tools for making these improvements. Now, confidence comes from a job well done, and is intrinsic in each daughter herself, not as a result of empty-though-well-intentioned phrases that sound hollow even in their young, innocent ears.
We still get it wrong. I hate to see them anything less than overflowing with joy and enthusiasm, and I often fall into the trap of thinking that heaping praise on their pretty heads will achieve that. I am reminded of my mistake when my adoring “You’re so incredibly pretty, my darling” is met with a rather tired, exasperated and almost sarcastic, “thanks mom, I know. You already told me.” Certainly, they know that I adore them. Isn’t that my job, though? Does it not serve them better to know that they are strong, capable, and equipped for life?
Only strengthening them, teaching them, and actually equipping them for life will achieve that. That is how we truly build our children’s self-esteem.