• Dr. Benton

Building Your Child's Self Worth


If you grew up listening to Madonna, you were probably raised during the era of “self esteem.” Self esteem became a buzz word back in the 80s when our parents were encouraged to build our self esteems with positive praise. Given the fact that adults thrive on positive praise, this approach makes sense…..and so many of us listened to positive praise, deserved or not, as we stood on the soccer fields or basketball courts. Our parents, coaches, and teachers cheered for us whether or not we really deserved it, we “won” a ribbon regardless of victory, and most kids made the team regardless of skill……all in the name of self esteem.

Naturally, it was assumed that positive praise would build a child’s self esteem just as it would with an adult. It may surprise you to learn that children don’t necessarily respond to positive praise in the same way that adults do. In his book entitled Nurtureshock, Po Bronson outlines this idea very clearly. It appears that kids usually dismiss positive praise that is unmerited……in other words, kids can smell a lie from a mile away.

Research suggests that kids whose parents praise them for being “smart” their entire life have a tendency to shy away from challenge. Why? A child who hears that he or she is “smart” over and over may begin to fear failure and avoid real challenge. Any challenge becomes threatening since failure to live up to the “smart” label could bring disappointment or embarrassment. Girls are more vulnerable to this effect than boys, but that isn’t a big surprise.

Instead, praise a child for effort and hard work. Regardless of grades or outcome, encourage your child to put forth his or her best effort. If your child is struggling, comments like “try harder,” or “focus more” both imply your belief in the child’s capability. Praising a child for being “smart” suggests a static quality that is not within control, leaving some kids feeling helpless or nervous when facing a challenge.

From a professional perspective, this makes sense. Being told that you’re “smart” without earning that praise might feel great temporarily, but it doesn’t hold up under competition. Effort and attention are always within our control, and increasing one’s perception of control is the primary way to help a person feel better immediately. This isn’t just my opinion, it’s a well established fact within the field of psychology.

Overall, we want our kids to be committed and determined so that they develop the number one quality associated with success in life: grit. Praise effort, hard work, determination, and commitment rather than outcome (grades). Sports teams are an excellent way to help your child learn how to work hard to meet goals within a team and develop more grit. These days, the most successful adults are not always the valedictorians, but the kids who learn to delay gratification and develop grit.

The take home message is this: praise behaviors, not traits. We want our kids to have a brick house of self worth-not a straw hut of fragile self esteem.


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©2018 by Dr. Lisa Benton Psy.D.