I grew up in a conservative home where I frequently heard about the problems of valuing children’s “self esteem.” Today, I live in a world where people often put down millennials by talking about how we all got participation ribbons as children, and somehow that means we all think we’re extra special, or something like that.
And then I come upon blog posts like this one, titled An open letter to my children: you’re not that great:
In the row ahead of me a family has taken hot pink duct tape and marked off 22 seats. We were specifically told not to do this at the informational meeting. Please, always follow the rules. They count off “new-naw, pawpaw, auntie Laurie, auntie Bitsy, Carl-baby, daddy, bubba, Unkie-Mikie, hankie…” These nicknames, while odd are also not the issue, but don’t nickname me when I am old. It’s getting embarrassing. The two woman marking off seats are oblivious to everyone around them. “Unkie-Mikey” just entered the auditorium with an enormous balloon bouquet. I am able to quickly conclude that they are the family of the infamous Kkyylliiee on page 3 of the recital program. She has a full page ad. She’s 5. The dead giveaway is that all of them have on pink t-shirts that say “we hope you dance KKyylliiee.” Don’t ruin songs for people by making silly t-shirts with the lyrics. The ad has Kkyylliiee in her recital costume in a professional portrait for the occasion. I am over the moon to see this chubby kindergartener perform, if only I could see over the balloons – and the camera equipment they are now setting up. Obviously Kkyylliiee must be quite talented & very special because she needed two of every letter to spell her name.
. . .
I can’t stop watching the insanity and as I compose this in my head – I make a mental note to myself to write this to you… My dear Americanized children, you aren’t above the rules and you aren’t that great … I am not sorry if you felt less than your peers because I forgot to turn in the form for you to be highlighted in a program.
As much as it hurts me – feel less than. Esteem not yourself. Feel lonely. Feel unworthy. Feel unaccomplished. Feel small. Feel lost. Feel broken.
For if you believe you are greater than, your father and I have failed miserably. Among the broken you will find Christ. My prayer for you is that you see Him everywhere. There’s no where to go but down if we as a society continue to treat mediocrity as mighty. If you are never uncomfortable, weary, left out and un-praised how will you recognize the desolate? And if you are never desolate how will you recognize how much you need a Savior?
And I am bothered.
I agree that we should not teach our children that they are above the rules, or that they are better than other children. But does teaching our children to see the value in others really require telling them that they need to feel lonely, unworthy, unaccomplished, small, lost, broken, and least? And what does that really accomplish, anyway? How does teaching our children to be self-loathing actually help other children, or society as a whole?
I am no longer a Christian, but I know now, as an adult, that there are strains of Christianity that do not emphasize self-devaluation. There are strains of Christianity that emphasize liberation, and power, and the ability of the individual to change the world and make it a better place. These strains are empowering, and focus on the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. So don’t tell me that these beliefs are to be expected, because it’s Christianity, and that’s what Christians believe. (I’m speaking to people like the author of the above-quoted blog post here.)
But now let’s broaden the question. How do we hew between two extremes, between teaching our children that they are above other children on the one side, and teaching them that they are unworthy and small on the other side? I actually don’t think the answer is at all as complicated as some seem to think.
We teach our children to respect the rules and to respect other children by doing so ourselves. In how we treat the rules, we present ourselves as models for our children. If we think we are above the rules—that we should get perks others don’t get—our children will think so as well. But if we stand alongside them and explain why rules exist, and help them understand the importance of rules, and how those rules effect them in turn, we set positive lifelong patterns. And when we treat our friends and the other children in our lives as having inherent dignity and worth, we model that as well. When we value the neighbor child, or the friend from school, when we express interest in our child’s friends and in how our child treats others, we model healthy patterns that will (hopefully) stay with them their entire lives.
If we model respect for the rules and place value on those around us, we don’t have to worry about telling our children that they are awesome, or that they matter to us, or that they have the potential to accomplish great things. If we accompany this praise and validation with good treatment for others and a respect for the same rules that apply to everyone else, our children aren’t going to get a big head or think themselves above other children. Instead, they will transfer the value we place on them to others. They will radiate the confidence we instill in them, and bestow it on their friends and acquaintances.
It is absolutely true that there are children out there who are being taught to see themselves as better than others and as above the rules, but this is not the result of praise and validation. Instead, it is the result of parents teaching them that the rules don’t apply to them, and a failure to communicate respect for other people and other children as well. Praising your child is not going to turn them into a selfish monster. Teaching your child that other children don’t have value and that they are above the rules, on the other hand, just might.
I see my children’s eyes light up when I tell them that I believe in them, that I love them, that I value them. My words set lifelong patterns for how my children will see themselves. I tell my children that they have worth, that their ideas matter, and that they have the power to create change, and they believe me—and that is powerful. We need to inspire our children, not take them down a peg. The world will do enough of that on its own. And when the world does knock our children down, we need to be there to support them, to walk through it with them, and to help them grow and learn through it. We are to be our children’s cheerleaders, and mentors.
While we’re on the subject of praising children, I should mention that research suggests it’s better to praise children for effort than for being smart. It seems that children who are taught that they are smart are more likely to give up when they encounter a difficult task than those who are praised for effort. I am careful to tell my children that they have the ability to do great things, but to emphasize that accomplishing these things takes effort. If my daughter mentions that a character in a TV show is smart, I will note that they’re smart because of how much effort they put into studying their subject area.
But how we apply praise and what we praise our children for is an entirely different subject from whether instilling our children with worth and value and dignity will make them think themselves better than others or above the rules. Our children need to know that we believe in them, and that we value them. In the end, I would argue that responding to children who think themselves above the rules and better than other children with criticism of parental praise for children is a red herring. If we model respect for the rules and value for others, building our children up will only reflect positively on others, and on their peers.
Let me give you an example of the problems with the way this issue is currently discussed. Last spring the media was blanketed with headlines like “Parents who praise children too much may encourage narcissism, says study.” But when you actually read descriptions of the study, you find things like this:
“Children whose parents described them as “more special than other children” and as kids who “deserve something extra in life” were more likely to score higher on tests of narcissism than peers who were not lauded in this way.”
No shit, Sherlock. The problem here wasn’t praise, it was telling children that they were better than other children and that they deserved something more than other kids got. And yet if all you read was the headlines, you would come away with the idea that praising children is inherently dangerous.
It is absolutely possible to praise our children, to value them, and to tell them that we believe in them without telling them they’re better than other children or that the rules don’t apply to them the way they do to everyone else. And again, this starts with our own modeling. How do we treat others, and how do we view rules? Teaching our children that they have inherent worth need not get in the way of teaching them that others, too, have worth. Indeed, the two ought to go hand in hand.