It was June of 1993 when I got my first pair of painters’ overalls. I was 10 years old and starting my first summer job – drywalling with my dad. If there’s one thing you should know about my dad it’s that he values hard work. Big time. When I started working for him it wasn’t for the purpose of saving money on childcare expenses – it was to teach me how to work and help me learn a valuable skill. And learn I did. I worked hard out on the jobsite. Even though I was only 10 my dad held high expectations for me. I started out earning $1 an hour spotting nails. Over the next 11 summers I would learn to tape, float, and texture. Quarter by quarter, I received raises until I was making $13 an hour. Every one of those 25 cent raises made me feel valuable because I knew I had earned them. I knew that anytime my dad told me I had done a good job, he meant it, and anytime he increased my pay I deserved it.
We live in such a self-esteem aware society that words of praise and rewards are a dime a dozen. Kids are praised for doing things that should just be everyday norms. While I value positive reinforcement and think encouraging our kids is a definite necessity, I feel like we’ve cheapened it. When we are constantly praising kids, constantly telling them they’ve done a great job, does it mean as much? Kids are smart. They’re discerning. At a very young age, they begin to notice the difference between our genuine pride in them and their accomplishments and fake praise that’s just used to make them feel good. Our affirmations to kids are so much more valuable when they’re real, not forced.
In the real world, everyone isn’t a winner. Everyone doesn’t get a trophy at the end of the season and everyone doesn’t get to wear a medal around their neck. You have to lose sometimes to appreciate the thrill of a victory. You have to fail to enjoy the pride of success. You have to struggle through a challenge to know what it feels like to overcome.
True self-esteem, true confidence in oneself, is built by overcoming. It doesn’t come easily and it’s not passed out by loving adults. It’s earned. While there are things we can do (and should do) to help our kids get there, we can’t build it for them. They have to walk the path themselves. One of my favorite quotes is by Silvia Rimm. She says this in reference to work in a classroom, but I think the truth carries over to all areas. Here’s what she says:
“The surest path to positive self-esteem is to succeed at something which one perceived would be difficult. Each time we steal a student’s struggle by insisting they do work too easy for them, we steal their opportunity to have an esteem-building experience.”
Think about it. Can you picture the look of pride on your child’s face when they truly feel that they’ve accomplished something great? Whether they struggled to learn to tie their shoes, made an amazing shot in a basketball game, or jumped higher than they thought they could, they feel good about themselves when they try hard to accomplish something and succeed. When we tell them we’re proud of them for something meaningful, our words hold weight to them and they won’t doubt that we mean them.
Not too long ago I overheard a conversation between Chris and Claire at bedtime. Chris was telling Claire goodnight and said, “I sure am proud of you.” Immediately, Claire asked why. Even at 3 years old, she wanted to know that his words held meaning, that he could back them up with actual reasons for his pride in her. And of course he could. He told her how he’s proud of her for being a good helper, for being thoughtful and caring about others’ feelings, and for working hard at things and not giving up. I peeked at Claire’s face as Chris spoke to her, and she was beaming. She knew that Chris meant what he said, that he wasn’t just blowing smoke.
When we overinflate our kids – constantly singing their accolades, telling them they’re the best, smartest, most beautiful, our words slowly depreciate in value. Eventually our kids are going to learn that they can’t be the best at everything they try. When they fail, they don’t need us to lie to them. They need to know that we still love them and we want them to try again.