The final score of the little league soccer game was five to one when Tyrone stepped off the field, kicked the dirt and told his mom he sucked at soccer. "That's not true. You're a great soccer player!" she pipes up, hoping to lift his spirits and keep him motivated.
Giving our kids strokes is what we're supposed to do. At least that's what we all believed since the mid-80s when California fired up the nation with a state task force to Promote Self Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. "Every kid gets a trophy!" was the thought of the day with hopes of improving self-esteem, academic success and protection against deviance.
The praise for self-esteem building is a movement that had a good run until Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck shared her research in the late 1990s. As a leading expert on the effects of praise, Dweck sounded the alarm bell: STOP!
Her research definitively proves that praise is a loving but misguided approach to building kids' self-esteem. In fact, she shows how we are actually hurting our children's mental development and creating kids who have low resiliency, shy away from challenges and whose self-worth is shaky at best (and perhaps narcissistic at worst).
Today's children are fed a regular daily diet of "You're so smart," "You're so pretty," "What an awesome picture," and "Good boy!" These kids come to believe that their self-worth is determined based on their ability to perform and succeed. Talents and accomplishments are wonderful, but what about those kids who don't have them? Or what if they erode over time?
Our worth is NOT dependent on how well we succeed -- it's a birth right. Every human has worth for just being alive and uniquely themselves. But children don't get this messaging and they hear the opposite when we praise them.
So what should we say instead? Even Po Bronson, author of NurtureShock -- New Thinking About Children, confesses to being a "social praiser." It's awkward when everyone else is getting praise and there is a noticeable silence if you aren't doling it out, too.
What I want Bronson to know is there are lots of things to say to a child that fills their bucket, lifts their spirit, improves their motivation and shows them we love them as they are right now. It's called "ENCOURAGEMENT."
Dweck says praise for effort and improvement is okay -- that emphasizes to the child that the process is more important than the end result. I agree, but encouragement is even richer.
Encouragement demonstrates faith and belief in a child. It asserts your unconditional love and regard for them. Praise can only be used for those kids who are doing well, while encouragement can be used for all children and especially for those with struggles.
So instead of: "Great game -- you were the best player out there today!"
Try: "Wow -- you looked like you were having a great time out there!"
"I so enjoy watching you play!"
"Your hard training is paying off, I can see how much better you're kicking and passing this year!"
In the end, kids who receive encouragement rather than praise benefit by having high self-esteem, strong resiliency and become higher performers.