The heading on the sheet of stickers says “100 Ways to Say ‘Good Job!’”, and then all 100 – from “Awesome” to “Zero Mistakes” – appear with accompanying smiley faces and abundant exclamation points. These are sold to teachers as self-esteem promoters. Everyone, especially the children, knows them to be artificial at best. But at least they are evidence of the general awareness that self-esteem is important.
But self-esteem is not so easily created, and certainly not when imposed from an external source. Self-esteem by definition has to grow from within. Students who receive praise for work they know to be less than their best feel worse about themselves, in fact, not better, to hear a perfunctory “Good job!” Older students feel dismissed, unworthy of a more time-consuming and honest critique of their efforts. Younger ones just feel vaguely guilty.
The source of self-esteem
Self-esteem is created not by stickers but by daily loving care, and from birth. Infants learn to love their own bodies as their small selves are fed, cleansed, soothed, valued, whatever hour of the day or night it might be.
Toddlers achieve self-esteem by beginning to care for their own bodies during the stressful “Me do it!” years, when parents find themselves being continually pulled between hovering over their child to prevent him from drinking out of the cat’s dish and waiting the extra half-hour it takes to permit him to brush his own teeth, button his own buttons.
By age 3 or 4 he may not require constant vigilance any more, but now his self-esteem hinges on his pleasing others by learning to obey all those rules of good behavior: sharing, taking turns, and resisting the urge to crayon on the walls or smack his sister with a toilet brush. Constantly the parent or other caregiver is there – as Erna Furman, a child analyst with a deep Hanna Perkins association, and author of several books on child development, wrote – first “doing for,” then “doing with,” and finally “standing by to admire” until the child is ready to do by and for himself.
The trap of phony praise
It is in this last “standing by to admire” stage that it’s easy to fall into the phony “Good job!” trap. If the admiration is sincere, the child senses that. If he distrusts the praise, however, he will feel not encouraged but manipulated. And if he grows to depend on the adult for confirmation that he’s done a “good job,” then he has not gained in self-esteem.
Sometimes, in fact, words are unnecessary. If a child is absorbed in a project he might well feel interrupted, even patronized, if an adult bursts into his castle building, dinosaur drawing or playclay modeling with effusive burbles and coos. “Standing by to admire” can sometimes mean just smiling and nodding, and then going about one’s business as the child continues with his, permitting his satisfaction to come from within.
If words are called for, however, a better choice than “Good job!” might such praise as: “You must feel good about being able to climb up to the top of that climber. You have been working hard at that. Last week you had to stop half-way up and now you’re at the very top.”
The child will benefit from hearing what exactly is being admired, and also from reflecting on how he feels about his accomplishment – not how the adult feels. You certainly don’t want him to start doing a “good job” only to win your praise; he then might be just as likely to start intentionally disappointing you if he is angry.
Obstacles to self-esteem
But what if he sincerely tries, and sincerely fails? What if the climber is just too high, the puzzle is simply too difficult, his drawing of a dog persists in looking like a drawing of a duck, and he comes to the caregiver wailing his discouragement?
Then the admiring adult is called upon to notice the effort and intent, the tiny steps that might in time lead to an accomplishment of the difficult task, and admire those. In fact, the parent has every reason to admire persistence and patience more than the completion of a tricky puzzle – and the child will recognize that conviction, and be reassured by, “Try again tomorrow. Tomorrow it will be a little easier. Or maybe the day after that. Soon you will be able to do that puzzle.”
And then there’s the matter of what you say when the first words that pop into your head aren’t “Good job!” but “Terrible job!”
The toys he promised to pick up are still scattered all over the floor, he woke up the baby with a sneaky pinch, he gave himself a disastrous haircut with the scissors he wasn’t supposed to touch. If you tell him of your displeasure, will he have a permanently damaged self-esteem? Of course not.
In fact, the spirit of “terrible job” – although perhaps not those exact words – is the message you want to convey, as opposed to “terrible kid.”
If you can keep your wits about you, you might follow the format recommended for admiring his successes: Tell him exactly what he did that distressed you, and then suggest that probably he feels bad about what he did and will feel better if he can make amends somehow. And then help him find a way to do that. He could get to work picking up those toys, or give the baby a cup of juice or a cracker to make up for having disturbed her, or sweep up the hair that’s scattered all over the floor.
Our own self-esteem is involved in whether or not our child can climb to the top of the climber, finish that puzzle, or go all day without pooping in his pants.
We would do well to remind ourselves that while our approval or disapproval is enormously important to our children, we should seek to gain our own self-esteem not through their accomplishments but through helping them own their own successes and failures, without looking to us for the ultimate judgment.
As Mrs. Furman so aptly put it, “Our self-esteem can rise with the thought, ‘I helped him toward becoming his own person and liking himself.’”