From the day our children are born, we want nothing but the very best for them. We want them to grow strong and healthy, and evolve into confident kids who can tackle anything. Sometimes, though, in an effort to raise our children as such, we take the easier road—particularly in the area of confidence—to shield our kids and ensure that they don’t have to struggle or feel badly about themselves. And sometimes, despite our best intentions, we may do things that actually hurt our children’s confidence and self-esteem instead of helping it. Here are four of the most common self-esteem killers parents dole out and expert suggestions for righting the wrongs.
Mistake #1: Thinking praise builds confidence
It seems counterintuitive, but overpraising often inhibits confidence instead of inspiring it.
Social psychologist and author Dr. Susan Newman says confidence must be cultivated internally, not bestowed by others. It comes from kids learning from mistakes, developing skills and acting independently of their parents—not from being told how great they are. Kids can start to rely on praise to make them feel good about themselves, and the development of their self-motivation can become stunted.
There are many ways parents can show kids they love and value them without complimenting their looks or accomplishments, says Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a physician and parenting author. “Try saying, ‘I value you because I know I can count on you to give someone a hug if they’re having a hard day,’” she says, “or ‘I admire you because you can laugh at a silly joke for hours.’”
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Mistake #2: Focusing on the accomplishment instead of the process
What we praise is what our children learn to value, says Gilboa. Focusing solely on grades, for example, teaches kids that A’s are the most important thing—no matter how they get them.
Focusing instead on how hard a child studied to earn a grade encourages him to do it again. The process is where learning and skill-development happens—and where self-worth grows.
Be more attentive to the child’s learning, hard work and perseverance, Gilboa recommends. “If we praise something we know they did and could do again, that builds self-esteem and confidence,” she says.
Mistake #3: Helping kids too much
Children learn from mistakes, but they’re often not given the space to make them, Newman says. Does a toddler pick herself up when she falls, or do her parents lift her up—or hover over her to prevent her from falling altogether? Is an older child allowed to pour (and sometimes spill) his own cup of milk? Do parents dress kids in the morning because it’s faster and easier?
“Swooping in at every turn just adds self-doubt,” Newman says. “As kids get older, they think, ‘I can’t make decisions for myself, what I do is wrong, my parents don’t trust me.’”
Parents need to let go and let kids try, fail and try again. “The more you allow your child to be on his own—within safety limits—the stronger and more positive he will feel about his own abilities,” Newman says. “The more you help them, the more they’re going to come to you and say, ‘I can’t do this by myself.’”
Mistake #4: Not giving kids a say
Family coach and author Susan Stone Belton thinks of families as teams, where everyone can suggest ideas for better behavior. If children can’t get to the dinner table without a hassle, for example, why not brainstorm with them to devise a solution?
“Parents are absolutely in charge and have the final say, especially when it comes to health and safety,” Stone Belton says. “But why not try an idea that a kid throws out there? Parents don’t have to be the only ones working on a problem.”
Like adults, kids feel good about themselves when they feel they’re being heard. “It makes kids feel valuable and important and needed, which is how everybody wants to feel,” she says. “It also shows kids that their parents listen to them, which is pretty much one of the most important things parents need to do.”