Everyone likes a “good job” stamp, but there seems to be evidence that a gold sticker for the sake of making a child feel good, may not accomplish the intended goal.
A recent study conducted by Ohio State University has concluded that inflated praise of children with low self-esteem may actually make the self-esteem of the child worse (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/270769.php). The conclusion is that students show higher signs of anxiety related to low self-esteem because they feel a higher need to always perform at the level being praised. This finding flies in the face of some parents and educators who have felt that what children need is praise and more praise even if the adult is less than impressed and the child could do better. This is NOT a proposal for the banishment of praise from conversations with young people. The study covered only excessive praise. The lead author of the study states, “If you tell a child with low self-esteem that they did incredibly well, they may think they always need to do incredibly well.”
So how should we praise our children? I believe the first thing we have to do is toss the term “self-esteem,” a psychological descriptor that didn’t exist in public discussion until the 1950’s. Although the definition of self-esteem is subjective, the literal definition conveys esteeming oneself, a practice that results in adults that show an immediate need for gratification and an impatience with the needs of others.
What would happen if we used a more Biblical set of terms for how we should feel about ourselves? Paul states in Romans 12:3, “For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.”
Each time the Bible speaks of loving our neighbor as ourselves, it assumes that loving oneself is a natural situation for human beings. We are normally wired for self-preservation, and in our fallen state, a great deal of self-centeredness, both positive and negative. But Paul seems to be warning against esteeming ourselves. If we think of ourselves with the same respect that we have for others, we won’t think of ourselves more highly than we ought. We will be sober, or serious, minded in our perception of ourselves. We will love ourselves at the same level we love others.
This perspective demands that we encourage each other, including our children, in ways that are positive, yet not overwhelming. Children will build self-respect and confidence when they have success. Praise based on success will be much more effective in building up a child’s confidence than praise for the sake of praise. Failures should not be either praised or used to berate, but should be accepted. Children, and adults, need to appreciate the usefulness of failure as a mentor. Successes should be celebrated. Children are smart. They realize when the praise is sincere.