A pattern that shows up very often in studies of resilience is a high correlation between resilience and self-esteem. It would be very easy to conclude that, if we help children develop self-esteem, we can also increase their resilience. It’s a small leap from that conclusion to trying to rise our kids’ self-esteem with positive affirmations and encouraging comments. Research, however, indicates that using that technique either doesn’t work or can backfire.
For decades, Americans smothered their children with positive talk aimed at improving their self-esteem. A groundbreaking 2003 review of mental health research found no evidence that self-esteem leads to positive life experiences. To quote the study, self-esteem is “not a major predictor or cause of almost anything.” More important, “it is far from clear that interventions aimed at boosting self-esteem will be sufficient to produce positive outcomes.” In other words, simply praising children in an effort to boost their self-esteem does not work.
In fact, some studies have shown that praising children actually can make them feel worse. One study, for example, looked at the difference between what it called “person praise,” directed at a child’s ability or other personal qualities, and “process praise,” directed at a child’s behavior. They found that parents (in this study Dutch parents) were more likely to give “person praise” to children with low self-esteem. A second part of the study found that children who received praise for those personal qualities felt worse when they failed at a task than children who received praise for continuing to try or for succeeding on parts of the task. Thus, if we want to help children feel good about themselves, we need to focus on their positive choices rather than their intrinsic qualities.
Another recent study reinforces this principle. It looked at children who thought of themselves as bad at math. The researchers had the children take the first half of a standardized math test. Then, they had the children give themselves a pep talk focusing on ability (“I am very good at this”), or a pep talk focusing on effort (“I will do my very best”), or no pep talk at all. Then, the children took the second half of the test. When the researchers compared the scores on the second half of the test, they found no difference between the children with no self-talk and those whose pep talk focused on their ability. The children who focused on their effort, however, scored significantly better.
If we want to help our children become more resilient, then, we need to stop trying to use affirmations to make them feel better about themselves. In the words of the 2003 study, we need “a basic change in many self-esteem programs, which now seek to boost everyone’s self-esteem without demanding appropriate behavior first.” Instead, we should reward children with praise for making right choices, behaving morally, and giving their best efforts.
I know this task is harder than it sounds. When our kids say bad things about themselves (“I’m stupid”), we instinctively want to contradict them (“No, you’re not stupid.”). We can’t leave them with only that affirmation. We need to point out specific good choices they have made. For example, we could say, “No, you are being too hard on yourself. I know you struggled with that essay, but you kept at it. I was very proud of how you didn’t give up on a hard job.”By focusing on choices, we can give them a sense of control over their lives and pride in what they have accomplished.
Our instincts to help our kids often get things backward. We cannot create in them the self-esteem that leads to success. Rather, we have to help them find the success that leads to high self-esteem. That success may be tangible accomplishments, but more often it will be positive choices and attributes that they can control. Praising those attributes is the best way to encourage them to continue developing the skills and character traits that lead to success, self-esteem, and resilience.