[Happy New Year from PiP! And many thanks to my dear friend and writing partner, Mary P., for keeping PiP afloat the last few months.]
Parents are eager to build their children's self-esteem, so many parents praise their children as often as possible. "Good job!" "Good listening!" "Good blinking!" Too much praise, even to a very young child, can become meaningless. Alternatively, it can become expected and sought out, leaving a child who doesn't receive praise for every little deed feeling insecure. Praise is important, but it shouldn't be overused. We want our children to have healthy self-images and not depend upon the judgments of others to give them confidence.
But how do help our children develop healthy self-esteem?
One way to do it is by spending a little time (30-60 minutes per week) playing with our children. I'm sure you're thinking, "Duh! Only a mean, heartless parent doesn't play with his/her kid!" So hear me out, because this is a little different than how we normally play with our kids.
Let your child choose whatever activity he or she wishes. (You don't need to play with her -- unless she wants you to.) As she plays, watch her -- attentively -- without telling her how to play with the object correctly or telling her that trees aren't purple. As you watch, describe some of what she is doing back to her without judgment (using a tone that conveys interest is essential!): "Oh, I see you're drawing a purple tree" or "you're building something tall with the red blocks." This may sound or even feel a bit silly, but this description lets the child know that you're really noticing her and accepting her and her choices.
Now, what I've just described may seem simple, or even obvious, but it's actually fairly difficult to do at first. So much of what we say is filled with judgment -- even if it's just conveyed in our tone and not our actual words. Plus, children work at a much different pace than we do. We can look at an object, know what needs to be done with it, and do it quickly because we have the developed motor skills. A child, on the other hand, may need to spend time attempting to put square pegs into round holes, or struggle with every little Lego for a good long minute before attaching it properly. Watching this as an adult can feel boring or even painful, and the urge to do it for them can become overwhelming. Ignore that urge. Give them the necessary time. And watch them. When they feel us watching them and accepting them, they internalize that feeling, which lays the foundation to healthy self-esteem.
These play-times also provide opportunities to reinforce certain desired behaviors. For instance, if you have a child with a very active temperament, you may want to reinforce concentration or carefulness. "I can see you're really taking your time putting one block on top of the other." Again, you're not judging her, or even praising her, but merely stating what you're observing, which can reinforce this desired behavior or at very least help her differentiate careful from careless behavior.
Praise is not wrong or bad. It's just overused. (I'll do a future post on praise because it's still important!) Observing and describing, however, is often underutilized. But such experiences are incredibly meaningful to children and help them develop a healthy sense of self.