February 1, 2016

Self Esteem and How Not to Grow It

My mother, who stayed home and gave us everything she had, raised us with the notion that three good home-cooked meals a day and a snack after school was as far as the parenting thing went. She didn’t edit my college essays or advise me on friends or teach me how to straighten my hair.

And nor did she try to build my self esteem. So why then has my generation of parents gone completely freaking crazy trying to give our kids self esteem? And is it working?

I confess to failure in that department. How ironic that despite my desire to parent differently from my parents, I mostly succeeded as a mom in the ways my own mom succeeded – Our family is big on cooking good food together. But the self esteem part? Not so impressive. And that was the gift I most wanted to give my kids.

I was forever telling my kids how wonderful they were. You’re beautiful. You’re smart. You’re so good at hockey… gymnastics… art…. writing…. People want to be your friend…. You’re very likeable…

My thinking was that if I, their smart mother, told them that, they’d believe me and then see themselves that way. I could not have been more wrong. My daughter educated me on the subject when she was in Grade Two: “You’re my mommy, so you have to say I’m smart.” She wasn’t buying what I was selling.

I now understand the failure of my self esteem project. Dr. Carol Dweck, formerly of Columbia University and then at Stanford, dedicated more than a decade to studying the effect of praise on kids. Hers and other work have found that a large percentage of gifted kids dramatically underestimate their abilities. So what do we, as parents, do about this? We pour on the praise.

Not only does the praise fail to uptick their self esteem. Dr. Dweck found that it does the opposite! Working with random groups of school kids, they praised some kids for their intelligence, and some for their effort – before they gave them a series of easy puzzles. Then they gave the kids harder puzzles, which all the kids failed at. Those who’d been praised for their effort stuck with it, tried hard and reported enjoying the challenge despite failing at it. The kids who’d been praised for their intelligence felt and acted hopeless.

Dr. Dweck then gave the kids another easy puzzle. Big surprise: The kids who’d been told they were smart did worse than they did on the first easy puzzle and the kids who’d been praised for their effort did much better on the second (harder!) puzzle.

Why? Because humans like to feel in control. The kids labeled as smart sunk in response to failure because they didn’t know they needed to put out effort, and when they failed at the hard puzzle, it called into question their natural gifts. They lost confidence and gave up. Whereas the effort-driven kids felt in control of outcomes. They knew they could try harder.

Which explains why praising kids for being smart or likeable or gifted not only doesn’t raise their self esteem: It lowers it, by causing them to respond to any failure with a condemnation of self: Well maybe I’m not smart… or likeable… or athletic. If they’re led to believe their success is based on innate characteristics that they’re lucky enough to possess (You’re smart!) then, when failure happens, they’re in trouble. They give up instead of persevering.

Will failure occur? Like death and taxes, failure is inevitable. Kids get a low mark on a test or a homework assignment. They don’t get invited to a birthday party. They don’t come first in a race. It happens. And kids who’ve been told how great they are have a tough time coping with ordinary failures.

We want our kids to see setbacks as comebacks. We want them to pick themselves up from defeat and try again. For this to happen, kids need to feel in control of their outcomes. We need to praise them for things they can control, like perseverance, kindness, trying hard…. And stop fantasizing that telling our kids they are innately wonderful is any kind of magic bullet.

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