- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 8, 2003

Mitchell Kalman of Fairfax County coaches a select team of 11-and-younger basketball players. When the season ends, he does not hand out trophies rewarding the boys for participating. After all, by that age, young athletes — Mr. Kalman’s son included — have shelves full of certificates, ribbons and other awards that say, “Good job.”

Instead, Mr. Kalman gives each boy a copy of the book “Values of the Game” by basketball great and former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley. Ideally, the boys have gained confidence and a self-esteem boost by playing the season, winning and losing, cooperating and improving. Handing out another trophy isn’t going to mean all that much, Mr. Kalman says.

“Up until about the third grade, I think it is OK to give out participation awards,” he says. “After that, I think they should get something, but not necessarily another trophy. A book, I think, is going to mean more than a drawer full of ribbons, which after a while doesn’t mean anything.”

Mr. Kalman and many other coaches, parents and teachers are catching on to the idea that too much praise can do as much harm as good. In the past several decades, the effort to respect, protect and even puff up children’s self-esteem has resulted in a generation of children who expect to win, whose feelings are never hurt and who believe they are the best.

Examples are all around. The school gives out stickers that say, “I am special.” Some children get “big brother” presents on their siblings’ birthdays.

Such sayings as “You’re all winners” and “There are no losers” are not only misleading, they are making children feel worse instead of better, says Charles H. Elliott, a New Mexico psychologist and co-author of the book “Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth.”

“When you try to pump kids up to feel good all the time, you are teaching them to become self-absorbed,” Mr. Elliott says. “It is the antithesis of what you are trying to accomplish. Praising a behavior you would like to see repeated is different from lavishing praise and attention on kids no matter what they do in the name of boosting their self-esteem.

“As with everything else in life, you can overdo a good thing,” he says. “Praise loses its meaning when it is tossed around like confetti. Some parents virtually follow their kids around the playground, complimenting them on their teeter-tottering.”

How did we get here?

The self-esteem movement has been an evolving process over the past few decades. It began with good intentions as researchers in the late 1960s deduced that a host of social and educational problems — from poor grades to violence to eating disorders — were a result of poor self-esteem. Schools began working self-esteem exercises into the curriculum.

Research was done by many groups, resulting in a gamut of opinions on what exactly self-esteem is and who might benefit from an increased dose of it. In 1984, California passed legislation and earmarked hundreds of thousands of dollars to create the Task Force on Self Esteem. The task force studied whether high self-esteem would protect children from some of those social ills. In the end, the group found a non-relationship between low self-esteem and social problems.

These days, self-esteem has become a misunderstood and misapplied concept, says Robert Reasoner, a former school superintendent in California and the president of the International Council for Self-Esteem, an organization that promotes self-esteem materials and workshops.

“As educators, we have a responsibility for growing effective human beings, not just achieving test results,” Mr. Reasoner says. “We are losing about one-third of our kids to drug abuse, dropping out, suicide and violence. So many practices in schools used to destroy kids’ motivation, so what we were trying to do is create an emotionally and physically safe place for them. We knew that rewards worked better than punishment, but that didn’t mean we shouldn’t make them accountable.”

Mr. Reasoner says the self-esteem movement became watered down into one of happy-face stickers and “I love me” jingles. He says that was not what he and the other educators intended.

“A lot of things are called self-esteem,” Mr. Reasoner says. “It is all about competence and worth. Self-esteem requires both, but you can’t just make people feel good — then you create egotism and self-centeredness. What I am an advocate of is earned self-esteem. There is a fine line between saying, ‘You are special,’ and making a kid feel better about himself.”

Michele Borba, a nationally recognized self-esteem educator, agrees that the whole concept has become distorted through the years. Ms. Borba wrote the book “Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing.”

“Self-esteem has been misdefined by some as this huggy-bear approach to life,” she says. “The goal has become to make kids feel happy. If kids get disappointed, we feel we have failed.”

The goal of self-esteem should be that a child feels a sense of worthiness and competence, Ms. Borba says. They should feel good about what they have done, but also have the skills to do it on their own and to bounce back if they don’t earn an A, get named MVP or win a medal at the science fair.

“A child with good self-esteem should be able to cope without you,” she says. “That is the mark of good parenting. If you are rescuing them in order to protect them from feeling bad, then you are robbing them of their opportunity to learn to cope.”

In this era of keeping up with the Joneses and racing to look good on an Ivy League college application, opportunities for parental rescue are everywhere, Ms. Borba says.

Lisa Montague, mother of two Reston teenagers, agrees. When her son was a fourth-grader working on a project for Odyssey of the Mind (a competitive problem-solving group), she saw firsthand how parents stepped in to prevent their children from feeling bad. When two fathers who had doctorates in engineering began “literally building the structure,” Mrs. Montague cried foul.

“The lesson learned was you have to play by the rules,” she says. “It was very humiliating, but they wouldn’t have felt good about it if they had won. There is nothing wrong with winning and losing. That is part of the problem. We want to say there are no losers, but I think you need winners so you can hold something up as an example of a goal.”

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman says not being the best is a crucial part of the developmental process. Protecting children in the name of self-esteem will only backfire, he writes in his book “The Optimistic Child.”

“Children need to fail,” Mr. Seligman writes. “They need to feel sad, anxious and angry. If we impulsively protect our children from failing, we deprive them of learning. By cushioning feeling bad, it makes it harder for our children to feel good. By encouraging cheap success, it produced a generation of very expensive failures.”

What can parents do?

Acceptance, not fake praise, will go a long way toward boosting a child’s self-esteem, Mr. Elliott says. That means making sure children understand who they are, accept their limitations, don’t always compare themselves to others, and keep a balanced perspective on how their behaviors reflect on them.

“Children are neither good nor bad,” he says. “They are humans who do good things and bad things. Instead of focusing kids’ attention on themselves, we need to teach them to evaluate their behaviors in terms of whether or not their actions support their values. Praise needs to be given for meaningful actions, not for intelligence or ability.”

So when giving praise, talk about the deed and not the doer, Mr. Elliott says. When your child brings home an A on a test, for instance, say, “You studied so hard and did a great job on that test,” not “You’re the smartest.”

“When you focus on deeds and reinforce kids for their efforts, you encourage them to persist and work harder,” he says. “Kids who are praised in this way concentrate more on the process of learning and working than on the outcome. They don’t worry about their self-esteem because they don’t connect their fundamental worth to their deeds.”

Brad Sachs, a Columbia psychologist and author of the book “The Good Enough Child: How to Have an Imperfect Family and Be Perfectly Satisfied,” also says parents should praise actions. They also should pay attention to the reason for handing out the praise.

“Don’t just limit it to tangible acts,” Mr. Sachs says. “A kind word to one’s sibling is just as important as scoring a soccer goal.”

Acceptance also means realizing what a person’s strengths and weaknesses are and realizing limitations, Mr. Elliott says. Maybe a child isn’t a star athlete but excels in foreign languages. Maybe his younger sister doesn’t do so well in math but is a competent writer. Being able to pick your spots will pay off, he says.

“Everyone can have a modicum of success,” Mr. Elliott says. “We need to accept what we are good at and what we are not.”

Also important: learning self-control, which Mr. Elliott says is a lot more important than self-esteem. To master self-control, children need to be allowed to experience disappointment and other bad feelings, he says. The only way to learn to tolerate frustration is to feel frustrated. Children can’t learn self-discipline without adults setting limits, and sometimes those limits hurt.

“That might mean not always being your kids’ best friend,” he says. “If you parent right, your kids will sometimes be mad at you. We don’t need to go back to harsh criticism, but we do need firm balance. There really are parents who can’t stand for their kids to feel bad.”

Those parents should give their children more credit — and not more help or false praise, Mr. Sachs says.

“Self-esteem has become a very loose term in the sense that there is something wrong with our children or that they are fragile and need to be pumped up all the time,” he says. “When you depend on others to praise you all the time, it is impossible for their self-esteem to endure. It becomes like a car that needs to stop every 10 miles for gas.”

WHERE CREDIT IS DUE:

THROWING AROUND TOO MUCH PRAISE CAN CREATE A SELF-INVOLVED CHILD WHO NEEDS CONSTANT STROKING TO FEEL GOOD ABOUT HIMSELF OR HERSELF. HOWEVER, WE SHOULDN’T STOP ENCOURAGING OUR CHILDREN’S BEHAVIOR, SAYS MICHELE BORBA, A SELF-ESTEEM EDUCATOR. RATHER, PARENTS SHOULD BE CONSCIOUS OF HOW THEY ENCOURAGE AND WHAT THEY SAY.

• PRAISE THE ACTION, NOT THE CHILD.

THE REAL GOAL OF EFFECTIVE PRAISE IS TO HELP THE CHILD LEARN RIGHT FROM WRONG AND DISCOVER HOW TO IMPROVE BEHAVIOR. SAYING, “YOU ARE SUCH A GOOD KID” ADDRESSES THE CHILD AND MAKES A SWEEPING COMMENT ABOUT WHAT HE OR SHE IS LIKE AS A PERSON. MORE EFFECTIVE PRAISE CONCENTRATES ON WHAT THE CHILD DID, SUCH AS, “THAT WAS SO NICE WHEN YOU SHARED YOUR TOYS WITH YOUR BROTHER.”

• MAKE PRAISE AS SPECIFIC AS POSSIBLE.

WHEN YOU OBSERVE BEHAVIOR THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO ENCOURAGE, WORD YOUR MESSAGE SO THAT YOUR CHILD KNOWS EXACTLY WHAT HAS BEEN DONE WELL. FOR EXAMPLE, IF YOUR CHILD IS DISPLAYING GREAT SELF-CONTROL, SAY, “I KNOW IT WAS HARD WAITING IN LINE SO LONG, BUT YOU DID A GREAT JOB OF BEING GOOD.”

• THE PRAISE SHOULD BE DESERVED.

CHILDREN KNOW WHEN THEY HAVE REALLY EARNED THE PRAISE THEY RECEIVE, SO BE SURE THE PRAISE YOU GIVE IS DESERVED.

• THE PRAISE SHOULD BE GENUINE.

THE BEST REINFORCEMENT IS ALWAYS SINCERE AND GENUINE AND LETS THE CHILD KNOW EXACTLY WHAT HE OR SHE DID RIGHT. CHILDREN KNOW INSTANTLY IF YOU ARE NOT BEING SINCERE.

SOURCE: “BUILDING MORAL INTELLIGENCE: THE SEVEN ESSENTIAL VIRTUES THAT TEACH KIDS TO DO THE RIGHT THING,” BY MICHELE BORBA, JOSSEY-BASS, 2001.

MORE INFO:

BOOKS —

• “HOLLOW KIDS: RECAPTURING THE SOUL OF A GENERATION LOST TO THE SELF-ESTEEM MYTH,” BY LAURA L. SMITH AND CHARLES H. ELLIOTT, PRIMA PUBLISHING, 2001. THIS BOOK SAYS THE DESIRE TO MAKE CHILDREN FEEL GOOD HAS RESULTED IN A GENERATION OF UNHAPPY NARCISSISTS. IT ALSO PROVIDES STRATEGIES FOR PARENTS AND TEACHERS SEEKING A HAPPY MEDIUM.

• “THE MYTH OF SELF-ESTEEM: FINDING HAPPINESS AND SOLVING PROBLEMS IN AMERICA,” BY JOHN P. HEWITT, ST. MARTIN’S PRESS, 1998. THIS RATHER ACADEMIC BOOK TRACES THE SELF-ESTEEM MOVEMENT AND WHAT THE AUTHOR BELIEVES IS ITS NON-IMPACT ON SOCIETY.

M”THE TROUBLE WITH PERFECT: HOW PARENTS CAN AVOID THE OVERACHIEVEMENT TRAP AND STILL RAISE SUCCESSFUL CHILDREN,” BY ELISABETH GUTHRIE AND KATHY MATTHEWS. PSYCHIATRIST ELISABETH GUTHRIE SAYS COMPETITIVE PARENTING IN THE NAME OF PROTECTING CHILDREN’S SELF-ESTEEM ACTUALLY CAN HARM IT.

M”BUILDING MORAL INTELLIGENCE: THE SEVEN ESSENTIAL VIRTUES THAT TEACH KIDS TO DO THE RIGHT THING,” BY MICHELE BORBA, JOSSEY-BASS, 2001. THIS BOOK DISCUSSES THE MOST CONSTRUCTIVE WAY TO PRAISE CHILDREN.

M”THE GOOD ENOUGH CHILD: HOW TO HAVE AN IMPERFECT FAMILY AND BE PERFECTLY SATISFIED,” BY BRAD SACHS, HARPER COLLINS, 2002. THIS BOOK DISCUSSES HOW TO CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES WHEN PARENTING.

ASSOCIATIONS —

• INTERNATIONAL COUNCIL FOR SELF-ESTEEM, 234 MONTGOMERY LANE, PORT LUDLOW, WA 98365. WEB SITE: WWW.SELF-ESTEEM-INTERNATIONAL.ORG. THIS ORGANIZATION HAS RESEARCH AND TEACHING MATERIALS FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO INSTILL SELF-ESTEEM EDUCATION IN SCHOOLS.

ONLINE —

• THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR SELF-ESTEEM, A NONPROFIT EDUCATIONAL GROUP, HAS ANSWERS TO FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ON ITS WEB SITE, WWW.SELF-ESTEEM-NASE.ORG.


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