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Raising Self-Esteem without a Pedestal

By Amy Landsman

Is there such a thing as too much praise?
What makes a confident kid? Is it a kid who never fails? Or is it a kid who tries new things and sometimes falls flat on his or her face?
Is it getting straight A’s? Excelling at sports? Playing the violin?
And, to give your child confidence, do you have to intervene, to prevent a stray C from marring the perfect report card? Do you have to talk to the coach to make sure your child gets more playing time?
“I think part of what we hear from parents is parents wanting to make everything just perfect for their kids. That does not make for strong self-esteem,” observes Zella Adams, Lower School counselor at The Park School in Brooklandville. “We hear parents telling their kids they’re absolutely wonderful. That’s kind of anxiety-provoking.”
It’s a tough balancing act, because as parents we hate seeing our kids frustrated, and we want to jump in and smooth the path for them. But if we put our kids on a pedestal from the start, they have nowhere to go but down.
“Kids start to develop because they can trust their environment, and they can trust the people around them,” says Carolyn Finney LCSW-C, director of Programs and Services for the Family Tree of Maryland.

“Kids aren’t born with self-esteem,” Finney explains. “It’s something that parents set the stage for.”
Many parents fall into the habit of telling their kids everything they do is great. The preschool art project is great. The child did a great job at soccer practice. The school history essay was the work of genius. While you never want to downplay your child’s real achievements, at the same time it’s important to be realistic.
“I think that we’re fostering a very hollow lip service, and it’s a very superficial feeling that they’re giving to their kids when [they] say that everything [the children] do is terrific…even the kids know that everything they do isn’t terrific,” notes Robyn Waxman, a Towson psychologist.
“You want to praise your kids, but you don’t want to falsely praise them. Kids know the difference,” Finney adds.
On the other hand, if your child does not succeed the first time, don’t call him or her a failure, adds Finney. Urge your child to try again.
And, by all means, offer praise! But instead of globally praising your child for every little thing he or she might do, Adams suggests being more specific.

Here’s an example: Little Susie paints a picture. Don’t say, ‘That’s the most wonderful picture I’ve ever seen!’ Instead try, ‘Susie, I love the blue you used in your painting.’
“It’s objective. It’s affirming. That’s what builds self-esteem,” notes Adams.
Sports can be a great outlet for building a child’s self-esteem. It’s important, however, for families to keep the role of sports in perspective.
Waxman urges parents to think about their goals for their kids. Is it all about winning?
“Look at the experience as an opportunity to develop values…to learn it’s okay when you don’t do well. People aren’t going to take risks if it’s not okay to fail. If parents would look at playing on a team as the whole experience and what their kids are getting out of it…they fail sometimes, they win sometimes…that would be a success,” Waxman explains.

The goal is not to protect your children from every disappointment but to raise them with the confidence to face life on their own. At the same time, kids should be able to rely on guidance from Mom and Dad.
“It’s a tricky job being a parent,” says Finney. “You’re walking on a tightrope…every now and then, all of us slip…kids do accept our apologies…that’s the good thing.”
Let’s face it—life can be terribly frustrating. As parents, we want our kids to have magical childhoods, and so we protect them from life’s ups and downs.

In the end, notes Waxman, all that protection can backfire.
“We protect them emotionally from dealing with difficult feelings, [we protect them] academically and behaviorally from the time they’re little, so they’re not too frustrated. It sends a message that ‘I don’t think you’re that competent, so I’m going to jump in and do it for you.’ They don’t get any practice…so they don’t have the experience of doing something difficult and succeeding, which is a really powerful feeling.”
“If we save our kids, if we spare them, if we protect them from any bumps, bruises, and hurts, then how can they cope?” wonders Adams. “Knowing how to cope helps you feel good about yourself.”

Protector to Coach
Instead of trying to solve your children’s problems for them, Adams recommends acting as a coach. If your kids are facing problems, sit down with them and help them figure out strategies for solving the problems.
“Kids are going to make mistakes,” Adams notes, adding that it’s okay to make mistakes, because children learn from mistakes. It’s all part of growing up.

Some parents start planning for college while their children are still in elementary school, enrolling their youngsters in tutoring programs and all sorts of sports and extracurricular activities in the hopes of their kids’ earning a scholarship or admission to a top school. But the price of this pressure could be burnout.
“We don’t say, ‘It’s okay that you’re just fair at English. I don’t expect you to be great at everything.’” Waxman notes. “A lot of parents have fallen into a trap of telling their kids they have to excel at everything. I see kids as young as 8 coming in with anxiety. They’re in competitive situations…the world is such a competitive place, and to have to excel at everything takes away from the process of the kid just trying and doing their best….I have parents telling kids to take less difficult classes…the message is the outcome is important, not the effort you put in, how hard you’ve worked,” she continues. “Self-esteem is about you trying your hardest, feeling good about the efforts you’ve made, and being resilient enough to deal with life.”

And, really, while it couldn’t hurt, does your child have to go to Harvard?
“The truth is there are thousands and thousands of schools out there, and [college] is what you make of it,” says Adams. “If our kids have the tools that they need to be independent, to solve problems, to be resilient, to have strong self-esteem, they’re going to be fine. The overscheduled kid may burn out.”
In the end, it can’t hurt for the whole family to kick back sometimes and just chill out.
“Downtime is not a terrible thing,” says Adams. “It’s okay to have some time to let your mind wander. To dream. To think. Some of our kids don’t know how to do that anymore.” BC

Want to Read More?
Check out these books and websites:
Madeline Levine, Ph.D., The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids (HarperCollins, 2006). Levine’s website is
The Blessing of the Skinned Knee, Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children, by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D. (Scribner, 2001). Although this book is written from a Jewish perspective, Mogel’s sound advice is helpful for parents of any faith. Her website is
If your child has a learning difference, the Schwab Learning Center website features tips on promoting self-esteem for kids with LD. Go to and click on Managing Your Child.

@ Baltimore’s Child Inc. February 2008

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