By Dinah Bucholz
I don’t believe in self-esteem. That is, I don’t believe in the way the self-esteem movement promotes the idea that parents and educators need to constantly shower praise on their children to make them feel good about themselves. In fact, falsely inflating your child’s self-esteem may hurt more than it helps. In a 1996 issue of Psychological Review, Dr. Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, published the results of a study on self-esteem that showed that violent criminals all share the trait of high self-esteem.1 In 2010, National Review Online reported2 that among students from eight countries, Americans came in last in mathematical ability. But when asked how they rated their mathematical ability, they rated themselves first. Their mathematical skills were abysmal, but they sure had high self-esteem.
Instead of telling kids they should feel good about themselves, it’s best to give them opportunities to feel useful, worthwhile and competent. By providing such opportunities, you are giving children the means to accomplish things they can legitimately be proud of.
It’s a huge relief for parents to learn that they don’t have to worry about making their children feel good about themselves by applauding their every move. Just realize that you can only point your child in the right direction and that ultimately, your child must develop self-esteem through feelings of usefulness and competence that can only be obtained through hard work and struggle; there are no shortcuts.
Allowing your child to struggle toward self-discipline or mastery of a skill will do more for his feelings of self-worth than hollow, baseless praise. Once he gets there, through hard work and persistence, what he has attained is its own reward. The praise is certainly a nice acknowledgment, but it is mostly icing on the cake. The real reward is the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that one feels when he reaches a goal.
My friend’s daughter was determined to teach herself how to knit. Armed with a ball of yarn, two knitting needles and a couple of how-to books and YouTube videos, she persisted. She often grew frustrated, and in such moments would throw down the yarn and needles and stomp around the dining room table yelling in frustration. My friend quietly observed.
One evening, her daughter said through gritted teeth, “I will get this if it kills me!” And by the end of the evening, she was purling, a stitch that is hard for beginning knitters to master. She didn’t need her mother’s praise (“You see how persistence pays off? Good for you!”) because she was glowing with the inner satisfaction of mastering a skill by herself.
Children need to feel needed and that they are contributing—just like adults.
You can help your kids feel truly competent in many other ways: don’t do their homework for them or have them rely on your help; don’t rush to solve their problems—let them feel frustrated and work through them. “I can’t” really means “it’s hard and I’m frustrated.” My son once told me he couldn’t do his homework; it was too hard. I said, “Really? You’re not ready for fifth-grade work? Should I call the principal and ask her to move you back to fourth grade?” Well, he went back to his room and figured out what to do pretty quickly.
Most important, children need to feel needed and that they are contributing—just like adults. The best way to accomplish this is by assigning chores. Through chores, kids not only achieve competence at life tasks such as sorting and folding laundry, setting the table, washing dishes or loading the dishwasher, preparing simple meals and baking cookies (chores can include the fun stuff too!), but they also get the satisfaction of a job well done as well as the feeling of being needed and of contributing something of value to the family. They will also learn to be givers, so by enforcing chores you are helping them avoid the spoiled-brat syndrome that affects so many of today’s children. Assigning chores also helps teach children responsibility.
Will your kids grumble? Sure they will. Feeling delighted about doing chores is not essential to achieving the sense of accomplishment and self-worth that accompanies their completion, so don’t worry if they complain.
Do not pay your child to do chores. Part of raising children is preparing them for the real world. One day your child will grow up and leave home. He will have to do chores in his own home, and no one will pay him for them. He must learn that doing a service is essential to being a productive family member—and ultimately a contributing member of society.
Do not underestimate your children. One evening, my husband and I left the house at 6:30 to attend a school function. The dinner leftovers were still on the table, along with everyone’s homework. I told the kids I would be home by 9:00, and that I expected the house to be spic-and-span and the youngest child in bed.
When I came home, the house was gleaming, the dishes were washed and drying on the counter and my youngest was fast asleep. It had been my ten-year-old daughter’s job to clean up, so I made sure to let her know that I appreciated her job well done. The next morning I saw my six-year-old with a lollipop. “Where did you get that?” I asked her. “Sarah gave it to me for doing the dishes for her,” she said. Indeed, Toby had washed all the dishes and, I now noticed, had used the whole bottle of dishwashing liquid. Those dishes sure were clean—and I learned that I had been underestimating her by not giving her this chore.
Pesach cleaning provides a wonderful opportunity for your children to reap all the benefits that come with helping out—and more. You can create happy memories for your children when they sit around the table peeling fruits and vegetables while listening to music and enjoying a spirit of camaraderie. It will also give them a sense of excitement for the impending yom tov. Because I experienced this as a child, Pesach is still my favorite holiday.
You will also help to instill in your children a deeper connection to Pesach. Nothing beats the satisfaction a child feels when Pesach arrives and the house is sparkling clean while delicious yom tov aromas fill the air—and she knows that she helped make it happen.
So this Pesach, enlist your children’s help. A nine-year-old is perfectly capable of cleaning out his own drawers. A six-year-old can polish silver. A twelve-year-old can do a whole lot more. And they can help with the cooking by peeling fruits and vegetables and so on. Who says you have to do all the work yourself?
Once your kids reach a certain age, they should be doing most of the preparation—while you sit on the couch sipping a tea and reading a magazine. After all, it’s zeman cheiruteinu!
Dinah Bucholz is a New York Times best-selling author and certified parenting coach. Send questions and comments to email@example.com.
1. “Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem,” Psychological Review 103 (1996): 1.
2. Dennis Prager, “Self-Esteem and Character,” November 2010.
Listen to Dinah Bucholz speak about children and self-esteem at www.ou.org/life/parenting/bucholz.