How To Give Your Kids Self-Esteem For A Lifetime

Your kids need self-esteem, but how much is enough? The experts weigh in!

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There’s a YouTube video that I watch when I need a self-esteem boost. I know I can’t be alone. More than 19 million people have watched the video of 4-year-old Jessica giving herself a pep talk in a mirror since it was uploaded to the video site in 2009. It’s hard to say exactly why a little girl’s “Daily Affirmation” video went viral, but I have one theory: This towheaded toddler brimming with confidence and self-love is video proof for all parents that we can do it. We can raise kids who ooze self-esteem, who are bright and funny and full of life, and who love themselves exactly the way they are. If you’re nodding along, welcome to every parent’s fondest hope: That we can imbue our kids with the tools to feel good about themselves, their bodies, and their abilities. There is no magic elixir, but there are some expert-backed tips to help get our kids there.

What is it, anyway?

Self-esteem can often go along with self-respect—having regard for oneself and one’s abilities, so it’s no surprise that developing that confidence in yourself is an important part of development for kids. It helps them grow emotionally, giving them the tools they need to take charge of their academics and later their work and personal lives.  

“If a child feels that they had choice, control, and an active part in their success, their confidence and self-esteem grow.”   —Christina Grosso

And developing it starts earlier than you might think—as early as birth, says Christina Grosso, director of trauma services and training for the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York City. How we interact and satisfy the needs of our infants helps them make sense of the world and their place in it, playing a role in how they feel about themselves. “As children move through their toddler and preschool years, their confidence is impacted by how those around them accept their successes and challenges and help them develop problem-solving skills,” Grosso says. “If a child feels that they had choice, control, and an active part in their success, their confidence and self-esteem grow.”   By the time children reach the age of 5, self-esteem levels are firmly established, enough to be measured. But when your 4-year-old is whining, “I caaaaaaaaaaaan’t” after you’ve asked him to put on his own socks, or your 7-year-old is insisting she will “never” understand the multiplication tables, it’s natural to wonder: Am I doing this right? Does my kid have good self-esteem? Relax. Kids are no more immune to self-doubt than we are, but that doesn’t mean they’re wading in the shallow end of the esteem pool. Trina Krischon, a child life specialist at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva, Illinois, offers this “test” to evaluate whether your child has good self-esteem: “If a child/adolescent or teen is asked to describe themselves, what adjectives do they use? If asked to create a collage of themselves, what pictures do they use?” Krischon asks. “If those words/pictures reflect positivity, happiness, or goals, I would say that one may be able to assume that the child sees him/herself as feeling good about themselves, their life situation, and therefore likely has a good self-esteem.” In other words: Your kids can have crises of faith in themselves. That’s part of being human. They can still have good self-esteem…provided you avoid the pitfalls.

The Praise Problem

You’ve probably heard about the biggest pitfall of all already. Parenting message boards and Facebook groups are rife with battles over helicopter parenting, the rise of “participation” trophies, and accusations from older generations (and the child-free) that today’s parents are raising a pack of entitled brats. The debate over how much praise we give our kids has been so loud that it’s become fodder for a host of studies on what happens when parents work too hard to raise a confident, self-loving kid.

“Words of praise alone are not self-esteem building. They can create a false sense of self for a kid.” —Mayra Mendez

The general consensus? When it comes to praise, there really is too much of a good thing, says Mayra Mendez, program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California. “Words of praise alone are not self-esteem building,” Mendez says “They can create a false sense of self for a kid.” In fact, researchers have spotted what they call a rise in narcissism in Western youth, and they put the blame on parents’ overvaluing their kids achievements, telling them they’re rock stars even when they’re not doing so hot. According to the study, published in 2014 in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, “children seem to acquire narcissism, in part, by internalizing parents’ inflated views of them (e.g., ‘I am superior to others’ and ‘I am entitled to privileges’).” Kids with too much confidence and a sense of superiority aren’t just insufferable to be around. They’re also more likely to bully others and more likely to blame others when they fail instead of working harder to master a task. Think of the parent who tells their kid they are the best soccer player on the team when that child has never scored a goal and doesn’t put in any effort on the field. That’s overvaluing a child’s achievements and over-praising, Mendez says. A better way to build self-esteem, Mendez explains, would be to focus on something your child did accomplish on the soccer field. Did they finally figure out the passing drill that their coach has been working on all season? Were they kind and helpful after practice, cleaning up all of the balls without being asked? “Empty praise is generally non-specific,” Mendez notes, while self-esteem–building praise makes connections between a child’s actions and their value. Nor will empty praise help your child feel better when they’re down. Parents mean well, and they’re often trying to protect a child’s ego, Mendez says, but piling on the kudos when your kid is struggling can end up backfiring big time. In part, it can be internalized as pressure to achieve impossible perfection. Perfectionistic kids or kids of perfectionistic parents can sometimes feel that nothing they do is good enough and strive for perfection,” Grosso explains. “When that is not attained—which it mostly isn’t because nothing is perfect—they can become angry, sad, and frustrated.” All that empty praise can also make kids less flexible and less able to handle failures than their peers. After all, they become used to being told they’re the best without having to work hard for it. When they face actual adversity they may be shocked by their inability to snap their fingers and make things work. As scientists posited in a 2016 study published in the journal Child Development Perspectives,Praise can lower these children’s motivation and feelings of self-worth in the face of setbacks (e.g., when they struggle or fail). Lowered feelings of self-worth, in turn, might invite … inflated praise from adults, creating a self-sustaining downward spiral.”

The Gender Myth

Another all-too-common trap that parents fall in comes along with the gender divide. Even as society pushes tired stereotypes back into the 1950s where they belong, research on both moms and dads has shown we still speak differently to our kids based on gender. We’re more likely to discourage our daughters from taking physical risks and less likely to discuss emotions with our sons. Comments like “boys will be boys” and “girls are better at the arts than boys” remain pervasive…and damaging. By adolescence, boys tend to have significantly higher self-esteem than girls, especially when it comes to a sense of personal security, faith in their academic competence, valuing their own attractiveness, and feelings of personal mastery. Girls are also two to three times more likely than boys to develop depression during preadolescence and adolescence, an issue researchers have correlated with their self-esteem. Meanwhile, the world of science and mathematics is plagued by a gender gap that scientists trace back to adolescence, when girls’ faith in their abilities in the subjects tends to plummet, despite evidence that boys and girls have equal abilities in math and and science.

“We should treat every child with the utmost respect for their unique ability to learn, develop, and see the world through acceptance.”   —Trina Krischon

Although much of the work that needs to be done to correct this is at a societal level, Krischon says parents should be looking at their kids’ individual strengths in helping them build their self-respect, cutting out the gender divide.   “As parents/society we should treat every child with the utmost respect for their unique ability to learn, develop, and see the world through acceptance,” Krischon notes. “Each child is unique, regardless of gender, and will thrive in an environment that not only provides their most basic of needs but looks to provide positive and enriching experiences that encourage feelings of exploration and individuality regardless of their gender.” In other words: A son should be treated differently from a daughter, but only because two daughters will also be treated uniquely as they’re unique individuals.  

What Works

So, raising a kid with good self-esteem is not synonymous with raising a kid to think they’re the best thing since sliced bread, the iPhone, and the fidget spinner. Could the real secret be in letting kids feel a little down once in a while? That’s exactly what the experts say our kids need…balanced with some good old-fashioned praise. “We have to help our kids tolerate disappointment and accept the reality that they will probably not succeed at everything they try by helping our kids develop skills to tolerate frustration and develop patience and perseverance,” Grosso explains. “We want to offer constructive feedback to help support them in their misadventures and also point out what they did well. Approach feedback as a praise sandwich: specific praise, constructive feedback, specific praise.” A good praise sandwich might be “You ran so fast today at practice. It’s great to see your runs around the neighborhood at night are helping you increase your endurance. Nice work!” This gives your kid the satisfaction of being praised, but even better, they’re being praised for something they themselves have control over. They made that praise happen with their hard work and discipline.

“Help kids gain a sense of mastery by offering them choices so they begin to establish control and self-direction. If kids can succeed on their own accord, they will develop a foundation for learning and positive growth.” —Christina Grosso

What’s more, research has shown that parental warmth is a key in helping kids feel good about themselves and develop confidence. They need to hear that we love them and support them, and we can do that by praising their efforts (without piling on false praise). The goal isn’t just to make them feel good, Grosso explains, but to help them develop competence. “When a child is frustrated by a challenge, help them find ways to problem solve,” she suggests. “Brainstorm ideas, role play and offer choices. Don’t do for your kids to ensure their success. Help kids gain a sense of mastery by offering them choices so they begin to establish control and self-direction. If kids can succeed on their own accord, they will develop a foundation for learning and positive growth.” If your kids are plagued by self-doubt, worry, and sadness, take heed. Kids who are bullied often have lower self-esteem, and it’s important to take these issues seriously, Grosso cautions. You can talk to your child’s teachers or a school psychologist—but also talk to your kid. “Encourage kids’ expression through talking, play, art, and music,” Grosso suggests. “This will help them develop a sense of control and “voice” to express thoughts and feelings and help them show us their world. We don’t want to leave them alone on this journey. It is with the support and guidance of their parents/caregivers that they will find their way and develop into happy and confident adults.” In the end, remember that self-esteem building is part of parenting, but you’re not alone on the journey. Everyone a kid encounters—from classmates to teachers to strangers on a city bus—can have an impact on how our kids see their place in the world. It’s up to us to help them navigate it all.

Jeanne Sager
Jeanne Sager is a writer and photographer from upstate New York. She has strung words together for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and more.