Many parents of today were children during the 1980s and early 1990s infamous “self-esteem movement.” Although noble in its intentions, this movement encouraged a generation of parents to praise children indiscriminately, protect them from criticism, and hand out awards just for showing up, all to boost their self-esteem. Armed with new research and greater insight, our generation of parents is still looking for ways to build self-esteem in children, hopefully in a more well-rounded fashion. This generation of parents tries to strike a balance between instilling in children a positive sense of self while not allowing it to turn into narcissism. It can be a tricky balance. With research to guide us and a bit of focused intention, we are better prepared to tackle this task.
Why is Self-Esteem Important?
The emphasis on boosting children’s self-esteem is warranted. Although not seen as a panacea in the 1980s, self-esteem is consistently linked to two crucial characteristics in children⏤initiative and positive feelings.
It appears that one of the key benefits of high self-esteem is the ability not only to take the initiative but also to stand up for one’s beliefs and persist in the face of failure. These qualities are, of course, vital during childhood and adolescence. Children and adolescents who persist are more likely to learn more in school, succeed in careers, and have strong social connections.
Secondly, high self-esteem is also consistently related to good feelings. Beyond that, the good feelings that come from high self-esteem promote happiness and help individuals bounce back in the face of challenges. From this, it’s easy to see why parents would want to focus on boosting their children’s self-esteem. How do we do this in meaningful ways and not the superficial ways of the past?
Parents, of course, are the first people with whom children interact regularly. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the quality of a parent-child relationship impacts a child’s self-esteem. Self-esteem is not developed in a vacuum. Children learn about themselves and their values through their interactions with their parents. For example, one study found that children who feel loved, protected, and rewarded by their parents had higher self-esteem. This contrasts with children who experience neglect, indifference, punishment, or rejection from parents. These children tended to have lower self-esteem, and, of course, it doesn’t mean that parents have to agree with everything a child does. Instead, psychologists suggest parents have “unconditional regard” for children. This implies that parents accept children and provide care even when they experience failure.
Tips for parents:
- Show your love and support for your children for who they are, not for what they do.
- Focus on an authoritative parenting style, i.e., one that provides boundaries and high expectations for children and supports them emotionally. This style of parenting is linked with higher self-esteem in children.
Limit Inflated Praise
One huge lesson learned from the self-esteem movement of previous decades is the careful use of praise. We all feel inclined to praise our children because we are proud of them. However, research shows that over-the-top inflated praise may backfire our efforts to foster genuine self-esteem in our children. One groundbreaking study showed that parents’ inflated praise of their children was linked to lower self-esteem over time. Researchers contend that this may be the case because inflated praise of children might set unattainable standards for children, and their self-esteem falls when they cannot meet these standards.
Tips for parents:
- Praise children intentionally, focusing on their effort rather than their ability. This type of praise is linked to children continuing to improve their performance even in the face of failure.
- In general, praise children sparingly regarding their performance on academic measures or similar assessments. According to some research, children do better when receiving informational feedback, especially as they progress beyond the elementary age group.
Striving for Growth, Not Superiority
In delving into the differences between high self-esteem and narcissism, researchers have determined that one key distinction is that individuals with high self-esteem tend to strive for growth (in their progress or learning). In contrast, narcissists tend to strive for superiority. Thus, from a parenting perspective, we can encourage children to seek growth with less emphasis on being better than others or comparing themselves to others. This focus on growth happens in our daily interactions with children and how we discuss their achievements and failures. Helping children see that their achievements are the result of effort and persistence can help them not only focus on continued growth but also help them focus on their path rather than comparing themselves to others.
Tips for parents:
- Avoid focusing on children’s performance in comparison to others. Put less emphasis on their social status or rankings.
- Help children focus on their growth or progress compared to their past performance, not others’.
- Limit praise and focus that praise on their efforts, not their seemingly innate abilities.
Although self-esteem is not the “cure-all” it was once thought to be, it is nonetheless an important attribute to instill in children from a young age. Over the last few decades, we have learned that praising children indiscriminately does not result in high self-esteem that can withstand failures and challenges. Instead, it grows from making them feel secure in your love and focusing on their development in areas that are challenging for them. Children can feel confident in taking on new challenges, overcoming failure, and persevering in meeting their goals if they have a strong foundation of self-esteem.
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The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
Leonard, J.A., Martinez, D.N., Dashineau, S.C., Park, A.T. and Mackey, A.P. (2021), Children Persist Less When Adults Take Over. Child Dev.
Baumeister, R. F. and Vohs, K.D. (2018). Revisiting Our Reappraisal of the (Surprisingly Few) Benefits of High Self-Esteem. Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 13.
Akhouri, K and D. (2018). Impact of parent-child relationship on educational aspiration and self-esteem of adolescents boys and girls. Indian Journal of Health and Well-being,