I raised my children right smack in the middle of the "praise your children for everything they do" revolution. Praise them for going potty. Praise them because they are special. Praise them a hundred times a day and they'll grow confident and strong. Aspects of this self-esteem concept have troubled me over the years, but I just couldn't quite put my finger on why or how. Now that my children have grown and I've seen the fruit of this teaching mature in our culture, I'd like to make a few observations about what I think might be a better, more effective approach in raising children.
I've been thinking on this for 3 or 4 days and woke up to find an article in the Wall Street Journal "The Most Praised Generation Goes to Work," (subscription required) that addresses the impact of people who can't function without effusive praise in the work place. Like every generation before us, my generation had our own struggle with the areas of lack in our parents. Many of us struggled with parents that often were negative, critical and never praised, so we swung too far in the opposite direction thinking that would be better. As usual, wild swings of the pendulum are more often simply polar opposites that are both errors.
Here's a few differences between effective and ineffective praise. Praise for real accomplishments and effort has real value, effusive praise for simply "being" does not. Praise for a character trait that is being built into the heart of a child such as honesty, integrity, diligence or caring is extraordinarily valuable. Praise for being beautiful is hollow, as beauty or the lack of it is a quirk of nature. However, praise bestowed for having a beautiful heart is earned. The important difference is praising for things that are worked towards and earned has lasting value, praise for things that aren't earned is hollow, empty and does not satisfy the hunger of a child's heart it simply creates a greater hunger… a child's heart knows the difference. There is value in competing for an honor and achieving it, there is little value when an "honor" is bestowed upon an entire class so that "no one feels bad." Our oversensitive culture is producing more overly sensitive and self-centered people than confident and selfless individuals.
The scripture encourages us in many places to live our lives in a way that is pleasing (or will bring praise or honor) from the Lord, rather than men. One such example is Col 1:10: And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, NIV. There is a reward that is greater than the praise of men.
Children that grow up with excessive, un-earned praise can be devastated later in life to find that no boss is going to follow them around and praise how well they refiled their file folders at the end of the day! They are going to be held accountable to actual achievements at some point in life, and we do them no favors by not starting that process when they are young. At some point children must learn to know deep within their hearts that they did a job well, they mastered it… whether or not anyone else compliments them on it. There's a significant difference between self-esteem and self-respect, and I believe of the two, the latter is of greater benefit in life.
A light-hearted example of this is seen every year on American Idol. If you've ever watched the early auditions phase (a truly painful experience) you have seen people that obviously have absolutely no skill or talent audition. Why? Most often they say it's because their family members have told them how well they sing! Were their family members being loving to them, to encourage them to pursue an area they had no talent in? Were the judges mean for telling them the truth?
Praise is important, vital and it is hard for a child to grow healthy and strong without it… yet it is not impossible for a child to grow strong without a single word of praise from his or her parents. How? Usually only if they become accomplished and achieve mastery of some significant area of their lives. So, what if healthy, true praise were added to mastery, how much more successful can an individual become? What then, do I mean by mastery?
Mastery is to take on a task, such as baseball and learn the skill set that is required to succeed at it. Mastery is to love art and begin to learn the concepts and techniques required to execute a painting that shows skill, beauty and is appreciated by others. No matter the intellectual capacity of any child… it is likely that he or she can master some area in life that holds interest for them.
Mastery can be a long-term process. If an individual loves children and sets the goal of becoming a teacher, he or she will need to attend years of college to become an educator. She will have to take many classes that she may not be interested in. He must master the materials required to become certified to teach, or he will not be. However, once mastery is achieved, the very skills acquired in its achieving the goal, begin to be used to make a difference in the lives of children.
Your children need to attempt tasks that are hard for them to master. It's possible that in setting hard goals, they might attempt something they might fail at, but remember true success is only achieved if there is a chance of failure! That might mean learning the piano and sticking with it until they have learned to "master" it at what ever level they are capable of. It might mean learning how to sew clothes or earn badges for Girl or Boy Scouts. There are many valuable lessons he or she will learn in the process of mastering a skill; such as they can accomplish hard things, if they work at it one step at a time and that each skill learned helps make learning the next skill all that much easier.
I was "forced" to learn to sew as a child. At first I was interested, but when beautiful objects didn't just fly off of my sewing machine, I soon began to lose interest. I didn't like that they took long hard hours of pinning, sewing, tearing apart and re-sewing. I hated that my mother didn't accept sloppy work and made me tear it apart and start over again. Unlike many of today's parents, who would have let me stop when I whined and complained and made life miserable for them, my mom was "mean." She made me sew 1/3 of my school wardrobe or I wouldn't have any new clothes, period!
Sewing taught me life lessons that were greater than purely the application of sewing skills to a task. I learned to read and follow directions, to figure things out on my own without a teacher, I learned that sewing was a skill that was made up of a hundred little skills — when I learned how to do an armhole, that skill applied to every garment I ever wanted to make from that day forward. I gained the confidence that though a task looked impossible, if I broke it up into a dozen little steps I was more likely to accomplish it. The first time I looked at a set of directions I was overwhelmed, but after a few years I skimmed through them looking for anything I didn't know how to do and often found there were none!
If you help your child build the ki
nd of true self-image that is produced through this kind of mastery, you help them to build an internal self-confidence that is far more valuable in experiencing a successful life, than any life based on externally sustained self-esteem can ever produce. May God give you the wisdom to know how lead your children to seek the Praise of God rather than men and to seek excellence in everything they do.
Audrey Jeanne Roberts