article in this week's Washington Post, child rearing experts have now declared that "empty praise" does little to raise a child's self-esteem and that local schools are responding by starting to demand academic rigor and effort from their students. Wow. How many years of research and how much grant money went into finding out that praising children for doing essentially nothing does essentially nothing to raise their self-esteem or their achievement. I could've told you that from the get-go and used the money to hire more teachers and buy more textbooks.
My own daughter has attended public school through the "everyone is special just because" years. Kids were bombarded with prizes, award ceremonies, "graduation" ceremonies from kindergarten onward, and trophies for every soccer team whether they won or lost. These kids are sticker addicted praise junkies who depend on a cheering section for every move they make. They have no sense of internal mastery or motivation. They often can't judge accurately whether their performance is adequate, inadequate, or really great because the adults around them praise them for correctness, improvement, effort, or even just showing up. While I certainly don't advocate going back to the dunce corner, it seems to me that the best way to help a child build his or her self-esteem is by helping that child master a skill or learn information.
There seems to be an implicit assumption underlying the self-esteem boosting theories that the reason some children "can't" learn is that they lack self-esteem. By boosting their confidence, they will gain the motivation necessary to put forth the effort to learn. This seems rather insulting to me. It puts the onus of the problem on the child or on the child's parent(s) or environment for causing his or her lack of self-confidence. Fix the child's social/emotional issues, and he will learn. While this may be true for some children, this theory does not look for causes of learning problems in teaching methodology or the school system. It has also proved ineffective. By and large, children in the United States overestimate their abilities compared to students in many other countries (source). By demanding more rigor and giving praise in response to specific achievements or goals attained, the child will most likely receive less praise, but the praise will likely be more meaningful. Encouraging sustained effort until success is achieved, rather than just the effort with or without a successful result, communicates to the child that he or she is capable of succeeding. As far as I'm concerned, nothing boosts self-confidence more than actually succeeding.
So, the next time you want to help your child or another child feel better about himself or herself, avoid doling out empty generalities like "you're so smart!" or "great try!" Instead, praise your child for being persistent when he or she is frustrated, for taking risks to learn new things, and for sticking with something in order to master it. Give your child specific feedback about what he or she did well and then help with those things that were not done well so that (s)he can improve. No one says that this need be done with an iron fist and a bull horn. Quite the opposite. What I'm advocating is that children be treated with respect and honesty rather than pandering and insincerity. Now there's a novel theory!