1513 Hall Johnson Road
Colleyville, TX 76034
All parents and teachers want children to develop self-esteem and self-confidence. But what is the best way to help them do this? Is it to praise our children for everything they do? To tell them that they are “special” and they can do anything?
I recently came across a website that advises parents that when it comes to praise, “There’s no such thing as too much.” According to this website, we should praise our children extravagantly for everything they do, including “an everyday event like getting ready for school on time.” It recommends that we shower our children with exclamations like “FANTASTIC!” “TREMENDOUS!” “TERRIFIC!” “SENSATIONAL!” “You’re the best!” “That’s the best thing you’ve ever done!” and “WOW!”
Hmmm. . . . Just reading about this over-the-top approach to parenting made me tired! It also made me ask myself whether it is productive to reward everything a child says or does with the knee jerk reaction of “Good job!” Can we really create self-esteem by praising our children for doing things that are a part of normal growth and development, or for behaving in a way that is expected in our society, like getting ready for school on time?
Dr. Polly Young-Eisendrath is a psychotherapist who has spent many hours with anxious parents who worry that their adult children lack good sense and empathy for others. She has worked with well-educated adults in their twenties and thirties who are discontent with their lives despite seemingly “having it all,” and a growing number of young mothers who suffer from the stress of pushing themselves and their children to attain impossible ideals.
In her book The Self-Esteem Trap, a recent addition to the BGMS Parent Library, Young-Eisendrath addresses the problems that can develop when children hear how special they are from the moment they enter the world. A generation of parenting advice intended to instill self-esteem has instead had the opposite outcome, she says, resulting in children who
•lack a clear sense of values or perspective;
•pressure themselves constantly to be or to have the best;
•are excessively self-conscious;
•fear failure and are therefore afraid to take risks;
•are hopeless about the future; and
•feel dissatisfaction with even the most desirable lives.
In The Self-Esteem Trap, Young-Eisendrath describes how self-esteem and self-confidence are often misunderstood. These qualities do not come from liking yourself, or from being praised for just being. On the contrary,
•Self-esteem comes from being able to accomplish things through your own effort, from knowing how to accept your limitations and seek help from others, and from seeing the good consequences of what you do.
•Self-confidence means that you trust yourself and your ability to handle a challenge. Self-confidence grows when we overcome adversity – that is, when we make mistakes, when we face disappointment, or when we have to solve a problem.
No one can give a child self-esteem or self-confidence. Children develop these qualities only through experience, and only by means of their own effort. Self-esteem and self-confidence can’t be created by adults’ comments or praise. In fact, too much unearned praise can actually interfere with the development of self-esteem. It can lead to children who are overly self-conscious, who constantly pressure themselves to be the best, who are afraid to take risks for fear of failing, and who end up feeling dissatisfied in life.
Young-Eisendrath says that
[t]oday’s parents tend to offer too much approval and enthusiasm for their children’s very existence, disrupting the child’s growing ability to discern the truth about her own effects and actions. Effusively praising every step she takes, every task she completes, every soccer play she executes, and every book she reads fosters the self-esteem trap. If nothing is respected as an ordinary part of becoming a civilized member of a human group, then a child may come to feel important for breathing – a belief that will not serve him well.
It’s not only too much praise that can damage a child’s self-esteem. This can also happen when we are too eager to help our children, when we want to make sure that they don’t have to struggle, feel disappointment, or deal with failure. When we rush in to save our children from experiencing the unpleasant consequences of their actions, from making mistakes, and from failing, we rob them of the chance to build self-confidence by coping with adversity and solving life’s ordinary problems.
As Young-Eisendrath says, “Think of your child standing to your right and the problem she needs to solve is on your left. If you step between her and the problem, you become the problem. She cannot see around you and she cannot see the solution. Get out of the way.”
Nothing strengthens children more than feeling that they are able to perform important and necessary tasks, and that they can be depended on. We see this in our classrooms every day. Children voluntarily take on real work that really needs to be done. They wash polishing cloths and napkins that are dirty; they set the table for lunch; they water plants and dust the shelves.
Even the youngest child can solve problems and correct mistakes. She can mop up water that spills; she can pick up things that she drops; she can start over again when the last puzzle piece doesn’t fit.
Older children can handle more complex problems. They can recognize a situation where help is needed, and rise to the occasion to perform a task without the expectation of reward. They can survive a quarrel even when harsh words are spoken and feelings are hurt, coming together to express feelings and exchange ideas about how disagreements might be resolved in respectful ways.
Imagine how it builds a child’s self-confidence to know that the important adults in her life believe that she is capable of doing something for herself, even if it is difficult and takes time, that she has the ability to meet a challenge or survive a disappointment!
Perhaps we should praise less, and express confidence in our children more. Instead of saying “Good job!” for everything from using the toilet, to eating breakfast, to drawing a picture, we can respect our children by accepting their accomplishments as a satisfying and normal part of growing and learning. Instead of trying to fix everything that goes wrong for them, we can express confidence in their ability to fix things for themselves, or to do things differently next time.
Paradoxically, it seems that the best way we can help our children develop self-confidence is to have confidence in them ourselves!
So if we decide not to shout “FANTASTIC!” “TREMENDOUS!” “TERRIFIC!” “SENSATIONAL!” “You’re the best!” “That’s the best thing you’ve ever done!” and “WOW!” whenever a child does something, what can we say? Here are three approaches used in our Montessori classrooms every day:
First, say nothing. Unless the child looks to you for reassurance or brings her work to show you, it is disrespectful to interrupt her by commenting on it. This observation, made by Dr. Montessori years ago, is a fundamental guideline in our classrooms:
Praise, help, or even a look, may be enough to interrupt him, or destroy the activity. It seems a strange thing to say, but this can happen even if the child merely becomes aware of being watched . . . The great principle which brings success to the teacher is this: as soon as concentration has begun, act as if the child does not exist. (The Absorbent Mind)
Second, say what you see. If a child looks to you for recognition, a non-judgmental statement about what you see (“You hung up your jacket” or “You cut up the fruit for our lunch”) tells her that you noticed her effort, and allows her to enjoy her own inner sense of satisfaction in her work. If she shows you a picture she drew, for example, you can offer descriptive comments that show your appreciation of her work: “You made blue circles” or “I see lots of red lines on this side of the paper.”
When praise is appropriate, praise the process, not the person. For example, instead of “You’re the best at math,” or “You are such a good reader,” you can say “It looks like you worked really hard on these problems” or “I see you read two chapters – you must like this book.”
If a child does something kind or helpful, you can comment on how his actions have affected others: “Everyone really enjoyed the sandwiches you made” or “Bobby was happy when you gave him a turn on the tire swing.”
Third, talk less and listen more. Open-ended questions show children that we are interested not only in their activities and accomplishments, but also in their thoughts and ideas. For example, you can ask a child what he enjoys most about a game he likes to play; how he decided what colors to use in his drawing; or why he picked a particular book to take home from the library. This kind of conversation encourages without evaluating or passing judgment on the child’s effort, and nourishes his interest in what he does.
Our Montessori children are fortunate to spend each day in an environment that challenges them to put maximum effort into their work, where thoughtful adults share their pleasure in the work without labeling the product.
When I think about my own daughters – now leading busy lives as an artist/art teacher and an attorney/actress/filmmaker – I realize that the priceless legacy of a Montessori education is a self-confident adult, an adult who welcomes challenge and believes she will accomplish what she decides to do.
This is true of our BGMS children even now, and it is delightful to see – our children are nothing if not self-confident! I’ll leave you with two little stories I heard just last week that illustrate the point.
A little boy moved up to elementary at the beginning of the year. Recently his old primary teacher saw him on the playground, and asked him if the work in the elementary class was difficult. “Oh yes, it’s hard,” he said, “but I can handle it!”
A mother was talking to her little girl about moving from primary to elementary. “Do you think you’re ready for elementary?” she asked. “Oh yes,” the child replied, “I’m ready.” “But what if none of your old friends are there?” asked the mother. “Don’t worry, Mommy,” she answered, “I’ll make new friends!”
Both of these new elementary children had rich Montessori experience in the primary classroom. They value themselves and their abilities. They are quietly self-confident. There’s no "self-esteem trap: for them: they have realistically healthy self-esteem.