As parents, it’s natural for us to be our children’s loudest cheerleaders. But we have to be careful with how we root for the home team. When we see something that we believe is praiseworthy, we offer what we think is a confidence boost with a praiseworthy ‘approval.’ But I believe the development of children’s budding self-esteem requires praiseworthy, meaningful feedback so that our children can learn to develop an authentic and healthy sense of self.
When praise is indiscriminate or narrowly focused on the totality of the child, it’s often too generic and can be superficial and shallow. Comments like “good boy,” “good girl,” “great job,” or “you’re the best” lack concrete information for the child to learn about himself and his relation to his world. Or for instance, when your child comes home with a drawing for you, instead of praising just the picture and saying “Oh, what a beautiful picture,” you could ask your child to tell you more about the colors, shapes, and the setting, etc. This is much more meaningful feedback, and it gives your child the opportunity to think about his production and create a story to express his feelings and ideas. Now, it’s not just about the pretty picture, but it’s about him and what the drawing means to him—emotional expressions that will help him build his own confidence.
One way children learn about themselves is by having the adults in their world act as their mirror and reflect productive, thoughtful and encouraging feedback. It’s important to remember that we are each born with a developing brain/mind and emotions. And one of parents’ many responsibilities is to listen, recognize and accept their children’s emotional communications as independent expressions, and then provide opportunities that will promote their development in a way that will build autonomy, confidence, and competence. If the mirror does not accurately reflect information about a child’s qualities and his behavior, then the child will not know how to reflect on his own and engage in experiences that promote a thoughtful self awareness.
After watching a few segments from Oprah’s Lifeclass with Dr. Shefali Tsabary, I can say that I share the same concern about praise that results in approval-seeking behavior. When children start depending on others’ approval, they don’t learn how to develop intrinsic motivation. That’s why I believe that parents’ natural inclination to praise their children needs to be based on productive and constructive feedback. These are the messages that will help promote the growth of an independent and healthy sense of self.
From broken toys to broken bones, life’s accidents and troubles are inevitable and difficult for our children to deal with. So when we are building an authentic and healthy self-esteem, we need to focus on praising acts of self-reflection, kindness, compassion, patience and persistence in the face of these frustrations. These are the experiences we want to praise and encourage when we want to help our children feel confident about who they are as they’re managing and dealing with these difficulties. These are the capacities that are truly at the heart of developing an emotional competence and intelligence.
Part of my philosophy that propels Beginnings School is that parents and caregivers need to build on the confidence in our children that will help them deal with life’s difficulties and frustrations in a healthy and emotionally constructive way. Building on these internal qualities—the ones that children will carry with them into adulthood and help them foster a happy and strong sense of self—is the best gift we can give.