Welcome back to the Around the World in Six Weeks Parenting Blog Carnival! Over the next several weeks, Deb of Urban Moo Cow, Jessica of School of Smock, Lauren of Omnimom, Sarah of Left Brain Budda, and I will be writing about our reactions to Christine Gross-Loh’s Parenting Without Borders, exploring parenting practices around the world. We are joined this week by the hilarious Stephanie of When Crazy Meets Exhaustion. For more information about the Parenting Blog Carnival, and future topics, click here.

Join us as we examine how culture shapes our parenting!


This week we are delving into the topic of self-esteem, and how different cultures around the world view the role of parents in shaping children’s self-esteem. Without a doubt, America stands out as a culture that embraces the importance of self-esteem, and possibly overvalues it. In general, many Americans think it is our job to praise our kids, and believe that the development of their self-esteem in fact depends on how much we praise them. Gross-Loh shares some very interesting viewpoints in this chapter, and discusses that this tendency to inflate our children’s self-esteem can actually “undermine the development of their resilience.”

Wow. For a long time, research showed that praising children helped them to build confidence, and in effect made them more successful. That school of thought has since been re-evaluated, and we as parents are left thinking, “Here I thought I was supposed to help my child feel good about themselves, and now I’m supposed to not praise them?” Kind of like the whole “eggs are good for you, wait, now they’re bad for you” thing. Frustrating!

One of the points that stood out to me was the fact that in America, kids have more confidence in their abilities than other countries, Japan in particular, but they perform significantly worse in all areas that they presumably believe they excel in. In other words, many kids think they are above average when in fact, they are not. There is noticeable disparity between the perception of excellence and actual performance.

I have had some experience with this in the past few years, or more specifically, with parents who seem to have an overinflated sense of self-esteem on behalf of their children.

When our oldest daughter was in preschool, my husband and I began exploring our options for the upcoming kindergarten year: Should we stick with our neighborhood school? Open-enroll her in a “better” school? Stick with Montessori? We were overwhelmed, and attended a parent meeting at our Montessori Preschool to help parents “navigate the maze of educational options.”

I’m sure the meeting provided some helpful hints, but sadly, the only thing I can remember is that no fewer than five parents inquired about the Gifted and Talented, or “GT” programs available throughout the school system. Shawn and I left the meeting making snide remarks about how everyone’s children were gifted. When we visited a school the following week, at the end of the tour the principal asked the parents if anyone had questions. A woman’s hand shot up, “When can we test our son for the gifted and talented program?” My husband and I smirked, and somehow managed to avoid a burst of inappropriate laughter.

I’m certain some of these people have legitimately gifted children. However- the number of parents chomping at the bit to enroll their children in the GT program was laughable. We think our daughter is exceptionally bright- she is an avid reader, has remarkable writing skills, and she possesses striking emotional and interpersonal intelligence. But I don’t think she qualifies for the GT program. Does that make me an unsupportive parent, or am I just being realistic? I have noticed that I take more of a quiet pride in my children’s successes, and even find myself modestly deflecting praise when another adult says something complimentary about them. I still value humility, and am put off by the overtly boastful attitude some parents present.

A graduation cap for preschool? Hmmm...

A graduation cap for preschool? Hmmm…

I am conflicted when it comes to assessing my own self-esteem. At times I feel like I am too “full of myself,” that perhaps my ambitions are nothing more than an overinflated sense of ego- delusional even. And other times I can see my insecurities and feelings of inadequacy practically seeping out of my pores.

I remember being very self-conscious as a child, painfully shy at times, and constantly worried that I had no idea what was going on. And other times- I performed solos in choir, or acted in a play, or won a writing contest- and I felt as though I might burst with pride. Polarizing, right? This has continued into my adulthood; to illustrate- I think I am quite gifted at self-deprecation. See what I did there? A little bit of both worlds- arrogance and humility, blended together seamlessly. OK, moving on…

I was totally in the GT Program. For real. You're not surprised, are you?

I was totally in the GT Program. For real. You’re not surprised, are you?

I struggle with my desire to protect my children from the same anxiety and lack of confidence that I experienced as a child. Naturally, I want to bolster their spirits, particularly my sensitive eldest child. But there has been a lot of hype lately about how it is better to praise the efforts than the outcome. I try to provide feedback such as, “I can tell you tried your best with that!” or “You’ve come a long way with your bike riding!” or “Your hard work really paid off.” Gross-Loh shared that many of the countries whose children outperform Americans emphasize effort rather than praising innate traits. They practice a growth mindset, believing that perseverance and overcoming struggles are more valuable than teaching children that they are “special.”

I avoid empty compliments, especially if they are not true. Forgive me, but my daughter is not very coordinated, and she kind of sucks at drawing. (Calm down, calm down… I’m mostly joking.) Here’s the thing- I am tragic at all sports and I have always been a terrible artist. So I can say to her, “I love the colors you chose!” or “You worked so hard on that picture- it means a lot to me that you gave it to me!” or even “Nice hustle!” (That’s what you say during soccer, right?) I can also remind her that not everyone is good at everything, and she has plenty of other talents.

But I’m not going to avoid praising her simply on principle. There are plenty of times when accolades are appropriate- but I try to save them for meaningful moments. Today on the car ride home from camp, my daughter told me, “Jeff was crying today because he didn’t have anyone to play with. So I played with him because I remembered when I was sad last week.” I responded to her with, “Izzy, you are a kind, loving friend. I am proud of you for being so nice to everyone.” I also praise her for her creativity when it comes to writing songs, performing dances, or telling stories. Because these are things that she is legitimately good at.

I do notice, especially when it comes to my 21 month old, who has no known attributes to speak of, (Kidding. She’s definitely going to be in the GT classroom in 2016.) that I frequently fall into the mindless “Good job!” trap. I’m really trying to implement the “praising her efforts” protocol, and reduce my effusive affirmations for moments in which she is really doing something remarkable, or at least more substantial than pointing to an animal that she has been able to identify for over a year.

One of the benefits of reducing even positive labeling and instead celebrating effort is that children are less afraid to fail, and thus become more well-rounded. I can see the effect this has had in my life; early on I became very attached to my “niche” and rarely ventured out of it. I am a rabid perfectionist, and I simply do not engage in activities in which I do not excel. Sad, right? For instance: sand volleyball. I don’t care if it is a friendly match on a holiday picnic or a bunch of drunk girlfriends on a beach in Mexico. I will not join you in a game of volleyball. Because I suck at it.

I would love to think my children will develop more “grit” than I did, and push through their challenges rather than getting frustrated and giving up. And that is why I will try to be mindful of the ways in which I praise them, and try harder to celebrate their efforts and improvements.

One final thing that struck me about this chapter was the following statement.

If, as a child, you become used to being the center of attention and believe you deserve to be special, you compromise your ability to engage in the healthy give-and-take that human relationships require.

Yes. And that is why I abstain from the “my world revolves around my children” philosophy that some parents have adopted. Well, that, and I am innately more selfish than some! I truly believe it is detrimental to my children for them to maintain the belief that they are the center of the universe, and even the center of the family. Ayelet Waldman was blasted eight years ago when she wrote an essay for the New York Times, famously stating that she “loved her husband more than she loved her children.” I’m not sure many women would line up to follow suit, but her point was that the spousal couple should be the center of the family, not the children. Whether or not you believe that assertion, I think there is validity in teaching our children to “know their place.”

Self-esteem is a loaded topic, and there is a wide spectrum of philosophies on how children should best acquire it. What do you think? How does your family help build confidence and self-worth in your children?

Be sure to check out the other posts this week:

From Jessica of School of Smock: I Can’t Stop Praising
From Sarah of Left Brain Buddha: Self Esteem Isn’t Selfish
From Lauren of Omnimom: I’d Say He’s Average
From Deb of Urban Moo Cow: Intelligence or Resilience
From Stephanie of When Crazy Meets Exhaustion: Don’t Let Your Kid Become An Arrogant A-hole

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