Here’s a harsh fact: Not everyone is good at everything. Some people are terrible athletes, some are poor in art or music, and some have difficulty with math or science. Conversely, some people are superb athletes, unbelievably creative artists and musicians, or show brilliance in math and science. That’s just the way life is. Not everyone is good at everything.
Unfortunately, you wouldn’t always know it. Starting in the late 80s, America’s approach to child-rearing took a radical turn which would affect every aspect of a child’s life. At home, parents began praising everything a child did; in sports, youngsters started getting participation trophies, awarded for just showing up; in school, no one received a grade below a B, and everyone made the honor roll.
All that praise and all those trophies probably made kids feel pretty good about themselves. The problem was, all that self-esteem was based on fabricated success. The kids that were never able to hit or catch a baseball thought they were great baseball players because they received trophies that said so. The kids that could barely draw a stick figure considered themselves to be a great artist because they had blue ribbons that said so. The kids that struggled with long division thought they were math geniuses because they received all As and Bs in math.
Is self-esteem and self-confidence, based on nothing, a healthy thing? In retrospect, the answer seems to be “No!”
The thinking now is that, since real life doesn’t have the ability to falsely sustain anyone’s feeling of inflated self-worth, the “every kid gets a trophy” method of parenting and education is just setting kids up to fail when they get out into the world.
Psychology Today suggests that, rather than give every kid a trophy, hand every kid a list of lessons they should memorize as they begin their journey through life. Here are a couple of the lessons listed:
- Life is not fair—get used to it.
- The world will expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself.
- Television is not real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.
- Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not.
What should parents do to provide their children with real self-esteem and real self-confidence? First, recognize that self-esteem and self-confidence are different.
It’s possible for someone to consider themselves to be a good person—based on their kindness, their generosity, their willingness to help others, their contributions to the community and to those in need—and still lack confidence. Conversely, one can have a great deal of self-confidence, and still have low self-esteem.
A well-rounded human should have both and both should be based in reality.
Self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves. During the everyone-gets-a-trophy years, it was thought that high self-esteem would lead to accomplishments. A generation later, that thinking is understood to be backwards: accomplishments lead to high self-esteem.
Family TLC relates the following cautionary tale: Psychologist, Dr. Lawrence Balter, tells a story of parents, “who made a big fuss about a poem their child had written. They talked about it for days, made copies to send to friends and relatives. But the child never wrote another poem, apparently convinced that he could never again meet the extraordinary standards implied by his parents’ gushing enthusiasm.”
According to Family TLC, just telling kids how great they are, rather than praising them for actual achievement, can backfire in another way. When children who have an unrealistic, inflated opinion of themselves are rejected or mocked by others, they are likely to become hostile, aggressive, and sometimes even violent.
- Don’t over-praise – Self-esteem comes from feeling loved, secure and developing competence. Parents can provide the first two, but developing competence takes time and effort. Over-praising lowers the bar. If parents heap praise on a child, even when parents know the child hasn’t given their best effort, the child thinks they’re already doing a great job and won’t be motivated to do better.
- Let kids make their own choices and take healthy risks – If it’s raining and your child wants to go out without a raincoat or umbrella, let them go. Getting soaked to the bone can be an educational experience they won’t care for and next time, they’ll ask for that rain gear.
- Don’t worry about failure – Many parents think failure will hurt their child’s self-esteem, but failure is the quickest way to build self-esteem. Overcoming obstacles and readjusting goals to make them achievable will help children feel good about themselves.
- Be a good role model – Make certain your own positive sense of self is evident to your children. Don’t make negative self-comments. Children learn from watching their parents, and if parents don’t feel good about themselves, their children will have a much harder time developing their own self-worth.
Self-confidence is how we feel about our abilities. As Psychology Today points out, courage, which is the realm of the unknown, is the precursor to self-confidence, the realm of the known. For example, today you may be considered a great public speaker, yet there was once a time when you had never spoken in public. It took courage to speak in public the first few times, but as you became more comfortable—as the unknown became known—you became a better, more confident speaker.
Many of the tactics for increasing your child’s self-confidence are similar to those for increasing self-esteem; however, it’s important to remember the distinction and the difference in focus between the two: self-esteem is about ourselves and our self-image; self-confidence is about our abilities.
- Nurture special interests. Help your child discover their own talents and qualities and teach them to value their own strengths. Also teach them that feeling special doesn’t mean feeling better than others because everyone has their own special abilities.
- Encourage curiosity. Parents may get tired of their children’s constant stream of questions, but as children learn and understand the mysteries of unknown realms, their self-confidence increases. For example, a firefly is a mysterious thing, but explaining how and why a firefly lights up, gives a child an insight into the natural world. Understanding what was once mysterious, builds confidence in the ability to understand other mysteries.
- Promote problem solving. Myrna Shure, Ph.D. and author of Raising a Thinking Child, says that her research has found that you can even teach a young child how to solve problems themselves. The key is to let the child find solutions. It’s good for parents to guide children in their thinking by pointing out possible consequences to various solutions, but ultimately, let children solve their own problems.
- Identify the reason for a poor performance. It’s easy for a child who does poorly on a math test to blame their own inadequacies. A child who thinks they did poorly because they’re stupid or the subject is hopelessly difficult is fostering low self-confidence. Instead, stress that a poor performance is usually the result of poor preparation and offer your help in preparing for the next test.
- Find opportunities to spend more time with adults. While kids are always more comfortable hanging out with their friends, it’s just as important for them to spend time with a variety of adults. Since children may only have experience talking to parents and teachers, being able to communicate with other adults will provide them with different points of view. Plus, kids feel more confident in their opinions when they’re accepted as equals by adults.
- Focus on the positive. Be specific in pointing out the positive side of a problem. For example, if your child is having issues with math, instead of saying something like, “Cheer up! The school year will be over in a few months,” explain that everyone learns at their own pace, and offer to spend time helping with math homework.
- Try, try again. Encourage children to try doing things their own way, face challenges and take healthy risks. Teach them the old saying, “Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.”
Psychologist Erik Erikson, in his eight stages of development, focuses on universal conflicts that occur at various stages of life. According to Simply Psychology, Erikson theorizes that the “successful completion of each stage results in a healthy personality and the acquisition of basic virtues. Basic virtues are characteristic strengths which the ego can use to resolve subsequent crises.
“Failure to successfully complete a stage can result in a reduced ability to complete further stages and therefore an unhealthy personality and sense of self. These stages, however, can be resolved successfully at a later time.”
The fourth stage, whose basic virtue is competency, occurs during the early school years. Labeled as Industry vs. Inferiority, Good Therapy explains the conflict like this:
“As children grow in independence, they become increasingly aware of themselves as individuals. They begin to compare themselves with others.
- Industry: Children who are accomplished compared to their peers can develop self-confidence and pride. Praise for their achievements can boost their self-esteem.
- Inferiority: Children who do not achieve certain milestones may doubt their abilities or self-worth. When children are constantly criticized, they may develop feelings of inferiority.”
As children approach this milestone fork in the road, it’s crucial to see that they’re on a path of good self-esteem and self-confidence, which will serve them the rest of their lives.
While teachers and other adults may have some influence over children, it’s really up to parents to provide the proper direction which will point a child down the path which will lead to future success.