Real-world self-esteem

Pumping up kids’ self-esteem with meaningless praise doesn’t help them learn — or grow up, writes Lenore Skenazy. Why not set kids up to do something praiseworthy and then praise them.

A kid who goes and gets the family’s groceries really has done something significant. Ditto a kid who makes the dinner. Ditto a kid who bikes over and hands grandma her card instead of just scribbling a note and having mom drop it in the mail.

There are a whole lot of “real-world” tasks we used to give kids that garnered them the kind of self-esteem we have taken to instilling artificially with gold stars for not-very-special “specialness.”

I just saw Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino in which retired auto worker Walt Kowalski tries to “man up” a Hmong boy.  At the end, Kowalski gives the Silver Star that he won — and won hard —  in the Korean War to the kid.

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  1. This article struck me as a bit useless – he identifies that there’s a problem of distinguishing between when to praise kids for writing a thank you letter and when to withhold praise until they write a better one, but he doesn’t pronounce any general rule.

    In the case of the kid calling out Queen Elizabeth in response to a painting of George Washington with some (all male) troops, well either the kid was purposefully being cheeky, or the kids were way too ignorant of American history to be asked questions like that, and probably too ignorant to make sense of the exam. Not being there, I’d guess cheeky, in which case a non-commital answer probably was good from the guide (the kids’ teacher may want to be a bit more active in their response).

  2. Margo/Mom says:

    Americans have never really understood the self-esteem issue. Self-esteem is not built by handing out praise, whether earned or unearned. It is built by affirming the baseline worth of a person that has nothing to do with accomplishments. Some refer to this as unconditional love. It is what exists between parents and children when bonds are healthy. It is built when grandparents believe that their grandchild is absolutely the best child God ever created (and are able to believe this without conflict about each and every one of their children).

    When healthy, self-esteem allows for the receipt and processing of honest criticism. When unhealthy, and criticism of accomplishments becomes confused with one’s sense of self worth. If I do badly on a test, I am a bad person. When unhealthy these messages are deflected, to protect the ego, the sense of self, from destruction.

    In our typical acceptance of Reader’s Digest style summation of research into something that can be read during the process of elimination, we have come to understand self-esteem as a false construction that results from the manipulation of casually related adults. Not that knowing this excuses attempts to degrade or trample the sense of self through unwarranted, continuous or overblown criticism (none of us is ever THAT healthy). While self-esteem is built through close and personal relationships that communicate acceptance, I suspect that it can be assaulted through much larger social structures that communicate the opposite–as women, blacks and other undervalued groups from various eras can testify.

    Some of the folks who take a serious approach to self-esteem and ego development suggest that it takes the unconditional-type relationship of about six adults to raise a child with health self esteem. That equates to two parents and four grandparents in some scenarios–but certainly is not the only option. A parent, two aunts, a grandmother, a preacher and a neighbor might also get you there.

  3. Joanne–SPOILER alert–white fonts are your friends. Not everyone’s seen the movie.

  4. According to the online etymology dictionary the term self-esteem was popularized by the the study of phrenology.

    Phrenology being the defunct “science” of determining personality from the bumps on ones head.

    An inauspicious beginning 🙂