Child Self-Esteem: How Much is Enough?

Recently, the media has highlighted a host of research studies that caution parents about the potential risks of over-praising a child. Some psychologists have even found that “transitory” experiences of low self-esteem can be good for children because these may cause children to think more reasonably about their goals, align them more realistically with their abilities, and increase their likelihood of attaining those smaller goals.  Understandably at first glance, many parents might react negatively to this concept and question why they should lower the bar for their kids or not praise them generously. After all, for so many of our children, especially those with special needs, the big problem is often not too much self-esteem but too little. The issue then is finding the balance between over-praising and setting up unrealistic expectations for our children, and setting expectations that are too low.

It is certainly true that not all of our children are going to leave school and go off to set the world on fire with the brilliance of their achievements. While we don’t necessarily want our children to become conceited or have unrealistic expectations, lowering the bar on their positive self-image could decrease their willingness to take on new challenges. It could also have the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Children with special needs often have a poor self-image due to unfair stereotypes. Could not supplying adequate encouragement promote these stereotypes instead of negating them? Additionally, if truth be told, no one knows, in full measure, what they are capable of accomplishing if they really try. So what is the best way to relay this message to children? In other words, how can we support and encourage children without inflating them?

Psychologists caution that one’s level of self esteem needs to be realistic, so as not to inadvertently encourage children to attempt to take on tasks or challenges that are clearly beyond their abilities, thus setting them up for failure. Drawing that fine line between too much and not enough praise becomes more a matter of art than science; and what is appropriate for each child will be slightly different. The take home message here: Promoting positive behavior with praise and encouraging future goals is beneficial for children with special needs. On the other hand, providing too much praise can cause unnecessary ego inflation and has the potential to set kids up for failure in the long-run. As with most things in life, a healthy balance is usually the best approach. Know your kids. Pay attention to what motivates their pursuit of success and provide more of that. Notice what results in their backing away from reasonable challenges and encourage small steps forward. This supports your children and communicates that you understand and value them, which ultimately builds healthy self-esteem.

Copyright 2013 James Stanfield Company. All Rights Reserved.

Source: Shellenbarger, Sue. “Finding the Just-Right Level of Self-Esteem for a Child.” The Wall Street Journal. N.p., 26 Feb. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2013.

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