Praise can increase self-esteem

Praise and perfectionism damage self-esteem

Parents like to encourage their children to give them Compliments to make and praise them. Most adults assume that praise is good for children. That is a mistake.

Text: Jesper Juul
Illustration: Petra Dufkova / The Illustrators

A mother asks:

My husband and I are parents of a six year old boy and a four year old daughter. Our son is in first grade after the summer vacation. Even though he won't be seven years old by the end of the year, we think he's ready for school. But something worries us: In certain situations he gets very, very angry. For example, if he builds a large tower out of Kapla and he doesn't succeed in doing it as he imagines, he loses patience and destroys the whole tower, so that the wooden boards fly in all directions. He starts screaming and cannot be calmed down. Another example is arithmetic. If we want to calculate with him, he listens with interest but does not want to say anything because he is afraid the result might be wrong. In our opinion, he can only handle failures poorly, we perceive him as immature on this point. Lately we have therefore tried to motivate him, telling him that he is great in many things, such as cycling, jumping rope or drawing, and that he cannot do everything right or be the best everywhere. My husband and I praise our children again and again so that they feel good and also notice when they have achieved something good. But now we fear that our son has too little self-esteem. We feel guilty about thinking we missed getting this done. Hence my question to you: is it too late to strengthen your self-esteem? If not, how can we help make it stronger?

Answer Jesper Juul:

Thank you for your question. Let me start with a little personal reminder: My son stopped writing essays in school when he was 13. He said, "I just can't." Back then, my wife and I asked ourselves what might be the reason for his refusal, until we suddenly realized that our son had seen me work since he was a child. I sit down, write and finish shortly afterwards. His impression was: Papa sits down and the words just sweep across the paper. That blocked him incredibly. As soon as it became clear to him that this claim did not apply to him, he no longer had any major problems with essays.

Praise can be addictive, especially when declarations of love are packaged in praise.

Now what could be the cause of your son's behavior? I could imagine him being criticized by two perfectionist parents. In this case, I am inclined to agree with you that a lot of praise can be a cause of perfectionism. But praise itself can also be addictive, especially when declarations of love are packaged in praise. Because that gives a child two options: Either it is “good” in order to receive as much love (in this form) as possible - or the exact opposite.

It is not a conscious choice. But it's a choice that shapes the child's personality development or survival strategy. We usually assume that a lot of praise for good performance increases people's self-confidence. This happens to the point where perfectionism or stage fright take over. The problem for many children is not that they receive praise for commendable work, but that we as parents say it in a somewhat monotonous way - and that doesn't cancel out an honest “I love you”.