Michael J. Prince, B.A., Psychology


Maintaining Self-Esteem

How parents can help their kids by Vicki Blum Vigil

The concept of self-esteem gained prominence in the 1960s with a landmark test authored by Dr. Stanley Coopersmith, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. The test showed that children raised in households where rules were clear and consistently enforced had higher self-esteem than children raised with more freedom.

School and church officials soon embraced the idea of promoting self-esteem, believing it would increase academic achievement and lead to more confidence. Extensive efforts were made to ensure that children "felt good" while Coopersmith's conclusions regarding discipline were generally ignored.

Today the consensus is that feeling good should not be the goal of education or parenting. Experts believe parents should tell children that it's unrealistic to believe they'll always feel good. The current theory holds that self-esteem, which provides good feelings, is simply a by-product of good parenting and good education. The following are a few ways parents can begin to promote positive self-esteem in their children:


Too much praise has become commonplace and could be a mistake. Children know when praise is insincere or unwarranted. False praise could lead the child to believe that parents have low expectations for them. Instead of saying "you're doing great," parents should give more specific comments such as "I see you've learned how to add fractions," or "your story is really clever." Have your children tell you three things about a project or activity they feel they did well and then ask for ways they think they could improve it. Parents also should not be afraid to criticize children. Young people are deprived of the opportunity to learn from their mistakes if we are fearful of calling attention to their errors.


Instead of using superlatives to describe an achievement, try using words of encouragement. Describe what you see or hear your child doing and avoid using evaluative words. Phrases like "You seem very excited about your picture" or "I notice you spent a lot of time picking up your toys," may seem bland at first, but they are helpful because they encourage children to respond with something other than "thanks." This helps your child internalize accomplishments, recognize ability and progress.


Dr. Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, says it's a mistake to think we can instill self-esteem directly into a child. "There is no effective technique for teaching feeling good that does not first teach doing well.," Seligman says. "Feelings of self-esteem develop as side effects of mastering challenges, working successfully, overcoming frustration and boredom and winning." Seligman agrees that school drop-outs, pregnant teens and young drug addicts may feel unworthy or sad, "but research shows that low self-esteem is not the cause of these problems. It is the consequence." Children need to be held to a certain standard and parents should not be afraid to tell a child when their work is sub-par. Accepting that mistakes can and will happen is an important lesson for children to learn. Children must learn to cope with failure and parents who coddle their kids are doing them a great disservice.


Help build your child's self-esteem by letting her know that you love her no matter what. This goes beyond simple words and hugs. Find new ways of telling your children you love them such as joining in their playtime activities or letting them have the run of a conversation. Parents can show their love by giving of themselves. Your time and attention are often just as important as your hugs.

Parents must take an active role in providing a proper environment for their children to succeed and feel important. There is much that parents can do to improve their children's self-esteem. Mistakes are inevitable, but, like our children, we can learn from them.