Is it possible to be too nice to your children?

Yesterday I was listening to the radio and was reminded of that fact that the people with the highest self-esteem tend to be those on death row. Those who feel best about themselves are often criminals. Indeed, that’s WHY they’re criminals. They think they are the best, that they are special, and thus they don’t have to live by other people’s rules.

Our society has become completely sideswiped by the self-esteem movement. If kids are having problems, it must be because they don’t feel good enough about themselves, the argument goes. So if they’re having trouble learning their multiplication facts, let’s work on helping them feel special, rather than helping them learn that 7 * 8 = 56. (do you know the trick to remembering that? It’s just 5-6-7-8).

Schools have courses on boosting kids’ self-esteem. All over elementary schools you see posters saying, “I’m special!”. But I’m reminded of that awesome line in The Incredibles, spoken by Dash, complaining after his mother is saying that all kids are special. “That’s just another way of saying that nobody is.” And he’s right.

I once knew a single mom who had pictures of her daughter all over the house. Now I have pictures of my kids all over the house, too, but this was almost pathological. They were often set up as if they were shrines to this girl, who was definitely not special. I don’t like to be mean, but she wasn’t bright, she wasn’t athletic, she wasn’t musical, she wasn’t pretty, but most of all, she was a downright miserable and annoying child to be with, especially as she hit 10 and 11.

I’m not one who believes that everybody has to be extraordinary in some area. I think we all do have strengths, but I think character is far more important than innate giftings. Develop love and compassion and integrity and responsibility, and you will be a special person. And anyone can develop these character traits. A person who is motivated, hard-working, and kind, even if they’re not extraordinarily bright, will go further in life than a person who is brilliant but lazy, mean, and arrogant.

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How we raise our kids, then, needs to take this into account. Don’t always go telling them they’re special or they will stop trying. If every tiny bit of effort they put in is amazing, then how will they ever strive for more? New York Magazine wrote an article about this a while back, looking at why kids who were bright often underperformed. Here’s what researchers found:

For the past ten years, psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia (she’s now at Stanford) studied the effect of praise on students in a dozen New York schools. Her seminal work—a series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders—paints the picture most clearly.

Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

The most important thing you can instill in your kids is character. So praise character issues, not innate abilities. They didn’t do anything to achieve those innate abilities; the praise should come with what they then do with it.

As a homeschooling mom (I even have some homeschooling products in my store!), I know that if my kids don’t try hard, they don’t get rewarded. If they try and still can’t do it, that doesn’t matter at all to me. The important thing is the effort.

We need to be careful that we’re praising kids for what’s important. Don’t praise them for being “smart”, or they may easily stop trying. Don’t praise them for being “beautiful”, because then the emphasis in their life is misdirected. Praise them instead for being honest, for trying hard, for showing creativity, for being polite.

All of this, of course, is in moderation. I do tell my girls they’re beautiful (as does their father), because that’s important when teenage girls hit puberty. But they know that’s not their main characteristic.

The idea of praising kids just for WHO THEY ARE is nonsense and makes no sense theologically.

We are fallen creatures. Anything good in us is from God. Let’s instead praise kids for WHOSE they are and for what they’ve done about it. Tell them God loves them. Tell them God chose them for something great, and that He has a plan for their lives where they can show others His love. Praise them for acting in godly ways. And if they happen to be brilliant or gifted at something, reinforce that that gift is from God, and with the gift comes the responsibility to use it for Him.

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If we all did that, our jails would likely empty out, because we wouldn’t be raising narcissists. We’d be raising good kids with an accurate opinion of their abilities. Wouldn’t that be better?

Tell me what you think! Have you been overwhelmed by the self-esteem movement at your child’s school? What do you praise in your child? I’d love to know!

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