Parenting in the Middle Ground
As with most parenting challenges, we are called upon to strike an all-too-elusive balance between two extremes: the tough love approach, typified by “tiger mom” Amy Chua, who advocates criticism, corporal punishment and name-calling of children who must earn their self-esteem through accomplishments, and the phony praise approach, common among some modern American parents, who cheer their children on whether they’ve earned it or not.
There’s more to effective parenting than either extreme offers. Here are a few ways to find the middle ground:
Keep it Real. High self-esteem isn’t a problem – it’s false self-esteem that knocks kids off course. Instead of applauding your child’s every move, reserve your praise for noteworthy accomplishments and behaviors. Praise should go beyond accomplishments to include personality traits that make your child who they are, such as being a good friend, telling the truth and working hard.
When you do praise your child, be specific and focus on effort rather than the end result. Telling your child you’re proud of all the effort they put in to getting an A on their test is more helpful than saying, “You’re so smart.” Knowing exactly what they did well will enhance your child’s sense of self-worth.
Encourage Strategic Risk-Taking. Self-esteem forms when children challenge themselves. Create opportunities for your child to try new things, and when fears and setbacks arise, encourage them to keep trying rather than giving up or rescuing them.
Acknowledge Strengths and Weaknesses. Children need to know that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. If you pretend your child is great at everything, this may artificially inflate their ego or send the message that perfection is expected – a set-up for low self-esteem.
Embrace Mistakes. Overprotective parents do a disservice to their children’s self-esteem. From mistakes and setbacks children develop resiliency and faith that they are worthy even if they don’t always “win.” Share your own stories of overcoming obstacles and work through problems with your child so they can be successful next time.
Love Unconditionally. Self-esteem flourishes when children know that you will always love and accept them (though you may not always like their behavior or decisions). This message comes through clearly when parents are generous with their affection and listen attentively to their children’s thoughts and feelings.
Reward Social Success. True self-esteem stems from close ties with other people. A 2012 study shows that positive social relationships during youth are better predictors of adult happiness than academic success or financial prosperity. In addition to reinforcing a child’s intellect or athleticism, celebrate their ability to empathize with or help others and encourage them to participate in activities that build social connections.
Avoid Comparisons. Your child needs to be respected for their individual talents and abilities. Resist the temptation to compare your child to their friends or siblings, even if the message is positive. Instead, emphasize your child’s strengths and help them work on their weak spots.
Set Realistically-High Expectations. Children do best when they know what is expected of them. Set clear rules and consequences and follow through when a rule is broken. This predictability lets kids know that discipline and constructive criticism aren’t personal attacks but violations of pre-established rules.
The Byproduct of a Healthy Relationship
The so-called “self-esteem movement” is not a complete abomination. Kids should feel “good enough” and “smart enough,” so long as those sentiments don’t cross the line into “better than” or “smarter than,” particularly if they’re not based on genuine accomplishments and abilities. As parents, this is one area where we can start taking it easy – no more nurturing self-esteem for its own sake but instead doing the things that naturally build self-esteem, like spending quality time as a family.