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The Secret to Self-Esteem

My 6-year-old, Matilda, is in kindergarten, and we're sitting at the pretty, hand-painted desk she just got for her birthday, basking in the glow of her light-up globe, and struggling with her sight words. She's the oldest kid in her class, so I think she should be acing this subject  -- and words are my business, after all. It hardly helps that everyone else has a child who was devouring Bread and Jam for Frances even before school kicked in.

Desperate for a motivational method, I blurt out, "Come on. We have to catch up with Allison. Don't you want to be in that special reading group she goes to every Thursday?" The sparkle in Matilda's big, brown eyes snuffs out faster than you can say Dick and Jane.

I didn't need anyone with initials after his name to tell me I blew that one. But building kids' self-esteem is an increasingly confusing business. A short time ago, we were told that the key was to praise, praise, praise. More recently, there's been a complete about-face, with some experts saying we should back off from flattery big time. "'Self-esteem' is one of those terms that has been bandied about so much that its real meaning has been lost," says Robin Goodman, Ph.D., a psychologist with the New York University Child Study Center. "Having high self-esteem doesn't mean thinking you're good at everything. It's about knowing your limits and managing them without becoming undone. Nor can you bestow self-esteem on someone through praise." So now we're left to undo a mind-set that's held sway for more than a decade.

Where We Were
Back in the mid-eighties, self-help gurus like Nathaniel Branden, author of The Psychology of Self-Esteem and a host of spin-off titles, were riding a tsunami of popularity, and everyone from educators to policy makers was jumping on the "I'm special/I love me" bandwagon. The California legislature even earmarked $245,000 in state funds to establish the California Task Force on Self-Esteem. The goal: to research whether high self-esteem would inoculate kids against skyrocketing social ills, from drug abuse to teen pregnancy. Meanwhile, parents and teachers nationwide were told by experts to pump up kids' self-images with sweeping statements like "You're so smart" and "My, what talent you have."

Then Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences added fuel to the anybody-can-be-a-star fire. Gardner argued that aptitude can take many forms: If a child isn't a math or verbal whiz, he may have strong artistic, musical, or interpersonal skills. When teachers focus on those achievements, Gardner insisted, the kid will feel better about himself, and that confidence will translate to higher test scores. Gardner's heart was in the right place, but along the way, parents and educators often focused on the bells and whistles and let basic academic skills slide, says Maureen Stout, Ph.D., author of The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America's Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem and an instructor of education at the University of British Columbia.

"The self-esteem movement in school has become destructive," says Stout. "We now expect teachers to solve all kids' social problems as well as teach them the three R's. But teachers can't do everything during school hours. Shortchanged on academics, children aren't excelling. And then we condemn the teachers."

Stout's biggest pet peeve is when adults give youngsters credit where it's not due, in the name of self-esteem. She says educators have gone to extremes to sugarcoat evaluations by finding excuses to promote unqualified children to the next grade level and eliminating most forms of competition from the classroom. "According to the self-esteem movement, if you can't give a child an A, it's going to oppress her," notes Stout. "But grades are not a punishment. They're a helpful and productive tool. And there are ways of doing ongoing assessment  -- with discussion and reports and portfolios of work  -- that are less stressful and pressured."

How the Backlash Began
Evidence that lavishing unearned praise isn't working has begun to pile up. The number of children on antidepressants like Prozac has reached an all-time high. Our students continue to be bested academically by youngsters in almost every other developed country. The California Task Force on Self-Esteem flamed out when the researchers found a "nonrelationship" between low self-esteem and teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, drug abuse, child abuse, and dependence on welfare. A Columbia University study revealed that excessive praise can make kids feel less confident rather than more. And research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology determined that unjustified self-esteem could lead to a feeling of entitlement or even aggression  -- as in, "So you don't think I'm as important as I obviously know I am? Then I'll just have to put you in your place."

And now "we have a generation of people who are disproportionately narcissistic," contends John Rosemond, director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, NC, a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, and author of Parent Power! and the Six Point Plan. "There's a growing awareness that the problems of American children  -- delinquency, depression, poor academic achievement  -- have multiplied with the self-esteem movement," explains Rosemond, pointing out that kids have gained a sense of superiority at the expense of motivation and responsibility.

The New Thinking
If we've learned anything from this theoretical tug-of-war, it's that praise won't work if it isn't tied to genuine achievement. Experts now agree that there are three tactics that nurture self-esteem: subtly encouraging your child's interests, not cutting him too much slack, and choosing your words carefully.

Help Kids to Discover TheirTalents. Children know when they're good at something  -- and that assurance has a halo effect. "Expose your kids to a range of pursuits; then open doors  -- by supporting their lessons and ideas  -- which encourages them to become proficient at the activities they like," says Martin Ford, Ph.D., professor of education at George Mason University in Fairfax, VI, and author of Motivating Humans: Goals, Emotions and Personal Agency Beliefs. But this doesn't mean signing your child up for every extracurricular opportunity. Choose wisely  -- and stress the importance of fun. For instance, if your local Little League is pressure central, opt for a less competitive team sponsored by the YMCA or a church group.

Also, make it a point to focus on your kids when you're together, says Ford, which promotes confidence by making them feel valued. For example, let the answering machine take calls while you're helping your child catalogue his coin collection; point out that you're not bringing the cell phone to his swim meet because you don't want to miss one moment of the event.

Helping kids set small goals and charting progress is another critical part of the process, one I could have used when helping my daughter with her reading. "The problem with making social comparisons is that the standard might not be realistic," says Ford. In other words, Matilda probably knew she was not going to catch up to Allison, her advanced  -- reader pal, anytime soon, and the challenge felt insurmountable. A better motivation would have been to encourage her to read books at her level and to chart her progress  -- with, perhaps, a list of new words she's learned each week. Then Matilda could gain a sense of personal mastery by comparing what she achieved this month with last, says Ford.

Let the Bubble Burst Now and Then. When John Thomas's son, Andrew, 9, failed a history quiz, his father didn't console him with a comment like "You're still great, kiddo" (as the self-esteem gurus used to advise). The Dallas dad simply talked with his son about how Andrew could do better in the future: They both knew he was going to have to study harder. Andrew hasn't gotten a bad grade since, and Thomas is glad the boy learned that you don't achieve without buckling down. "There's no self-esteem movement in the work world," says Thomas. "If you turn in a poor report, your boss won't say, 'Hey, I like the paper stock you chose.' Setting kids up like this is doing them a disservice."

Speak the Language of Success. Of course, the self-esteem movement didn't turn every kid into a praise junkie who expects to be complimented all the time; some children felt worse in spite of all the kind words. Kids know when you're insincere with your praise, even at an early age. So be honest, acknowledge when they slip up, and move forward.

Matthew Sawyer,* 8, of New York City, needed that kind of straightforward approach. "Matthew is really hard on himself, particularly when it comes to handwriting," says Joyce,* his mom. "If he messed up when signing a card or doing a work sheet, he'd say, 'I'm such an idiot, I can't do anything right.' Sawyer's response was to list everything he was good at, which didn't help. So she consulted a therapist and learned she was complicating things by discounting Matthew's feelings. "She told me to say instead, 'I know, we all feel that way when we don't get something right.' At first, this made me feel like I wasn't doing anything for him," Sawyer notes. "But we avoided getting stuck in a debate about what he's good and bad at and were able to get past it." Now, a few months later, Matthew just says "Oops" if he makes a mistake  -- and fixes it.

Praise that rings true has certain features. "You should describe rather than judge, and separate the person from the behavior," says Goodman. Instead of making broad statements like "You're the best helper ever," try "It was a good idea to sort the laundry by owner. Now we can put the clothes away faster."

Your praise should fall into one of two categories, explains Ford. Ordinary encouragement ought to give informative feedback. More effusive compliments should be reserved for special occasions. Says Ford, "When praise is unexpected, it becomes something remarkable."

And therein lies the ultimate secret to high self-esteem. "When you achieve something, you feel good," says Stout. "If we make sure children know they're important, help them to discover their individual gifts, then give them the skills to succeed, they will. It's that simple."

Stephanie Wood writes frequently on family issues. She lives in Rockland County, NY, with her husband and two children.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.