Confidence Beyond Praise

By Dr. Jadis Blurton, Clinical Director

Nothing is more frustrating than working with a child who has many gifts but does not recognize his or her own strengths.  Renowned educator Rick Lavoie writes that self-esteem is like poker chips: children “spend” them every time they try something new. Children with few chips will be afraid to raise a hand, risk a wrong answer, try a new activity, or create a new invention. Our job as educators and parents is to take as few as possible, give as many as we can, and stand in the way of anyone who routinely takes away a child’s chips.

Self-esteem also predicts future successes.  Psychologist Erik Erikson felt that primary school children are in the stage of “Industry versus Inferiority.”  Since each of Erikson’s stages assists in the next stage, how children fare in their younger years influences the adolescent stage of “Identity versus Role Diffusion,” with children who feel successful in primary school much more likely to find a clear and positive sense of identity in secondary school and beyond.

And yet, simply praising students does not seem to work.  The “Self-Esteem Movement” of the 1960s did not produce adults who were happier or more productive.  In fact, research shows that if we give indiscriminate congratulations or try to insist that everyone is best, children’s self-esteem goes down.  (As does, predictably, their trust in our praise.)

So what can we do to improve children’s cache of poker chips?  Although praise alone does not work, there are a few things that have been shown to be powerful in helping children to create and maintain positive self-concepts.

  • Nothing builds confidence like competence.  Promote activities that give a child the chance to learn a skill that is not universal to his or her peer group or to achieve an individual goal.  Children who learn to sail a small boat, perform first aid, climb a cliff or play a musical instrument are more likely to recognize those skills as concrete successes.
  • Identify islands of excellence and build on them.  Because these strengths are self-reinforcing, children learn perseverance and “grit” in their pursuit, and this grit then generalizes to other areas that they may find more difficult.  (A child who has practiced baseball may be persistent when working on math.)    
  • Promote a growth mindset by praising (or noticing) effort rather than achievement.  Even natural athletes have to practice to become great, and natural mathematicians do too.  Recognizing that a child has persisted through five failures or has worked hard on a project is more important than praising a correct answer.
  • Be honest about areas of weakness, but put them in perspective.  Students in primary and secondary school are expected to be generalists, good at everything.  This is not something we expect of adults, and of course it is not reasonable for children either.  It is not a disaster if some things require more effort than others.  
  • Try giving praise in the second person (“You must be so proud of that”) instead of first person (“I’m so proud of you for that”).  It may sound like a subtle distinction, but the first sentence requires that children reflect on their own feelings and recognize their own success, while the second requires only a passive response.  The act of self-reflection causes the child to think, “Well, yes, I am actually proud of that.”

Nothing is more central to people than their own understanding of who they are.  We can help kids to maintain a positive self-image by providing them with opportunities, honesty and respect for their efforts.   

This article originally appeared in the SCMP Education Post.