I remember being berated by a fellow parent because I had not attended my son’s fifth grade graduation day. The friend had taken the day off from a hectic work week, and had gone to school early with his SLR camera and various lenses, the better to take pictures of his daughter’s big day. And here was me, a bad mother who had forgotten all about the ‘big’ day! I was quite remorseful, although the careful questioning of my son later led me to believe that his self-esteem was none too damaged by my absence. In my defense, I can only say that in my time, we graduated just once,and not several times in our school life – kindergarten to first grade, primary to middle school etc – so these ‘graduation days’ did not register to me as important.
Today, kids are celebrated for every small thing, that was once considered unremarkable just a generation ago. Go to a school day, and it seems as if every kid is receiving a prize for something or the other. In sports, it used to be that the kid who reached the finish line first got a prize – now every kid gets a prize: for participation, sometimes just for showing up. From the days of the stern, authoritative parent and teacher of yore, we have swung to the opposite end, and today we praise kids for every little thing they do, however insignificant. “You finished your lunch – wonderful!” “Great job on the swings and slides!” Huh?
While we definitely want our kids to have a healthy self-esteem, praising indiscriminately is not the way to go about it. High self-esteem should be based on positive behaviours and genuine accomplishments, on achievements obtained though hard work and effort. We don’t want our kids to have a false sense of esteem, that needs outside praise to feel good; we need to build in them a strong internal sense of worth. And this can be developed only through genuine achievement.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be positive and encouraging – but we must not let praise become a drug, something that the kids need, and can’t function without. How can we do this as parents? I read a nice quote from Dr Allan Josephson, MD, chairman of the Family Committee of the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, that I thought I’d share with you. He says, “Self-esteem certainly is important. But we’ve developed this misguided notion that parents should continually reward and praise their children. That doesn’t work either. Healthy self-esteem comes from having parents who are physically and emotionally available, and who set appropriate limits on their [children’s] behaviour, and then help them develop autonomy. It should be a by-product of a healthy relationship with a child, not the goal.”