This One Thing Boosts Kids’ Self-Esteem, Science Says—and It’s Not Praise

If you want your kids to be confident and self-assured, you need to help them see the value of failure—and that's just the start.

kidSuzanne Tucker/ShutterstockNaturally, parents praise their kids. They want to encourage their children every day—there’s even advice that they should. Whether Junior has finally mastered the potty, eaten all his vegetables, drawn a lovely picture, or won the spelling bee, mom and dad want to heap on praise. But when it comes to boosting self-esteem in children, praise doesn’t always have a positive effect, according to a special edition of the journal Child Development. The issue, edited by Eddie Brummelman from the University of Amsterdam and Sander Thomaes from Utrecht University, is focused on research into how children develop a sense of self—and building your child’s confidence takes different skills than you might think.

Brummelman points out that children are born without a sense of self, but it doesn’t take long for them to formulate answers to the questions, “Who am I?” and “What is my place in the world?” Some kids have a lot of confidence and may feel superior to peers, while others may carry more self-doubt and see themselves as inferior. Yet no one really understands what causes children to view themselves the way they do. “Surprisingly little is known about the origins of children’s self-concept,” Brummelman told ScienceDaily. “It is important that we shed more light on this important subject. With this collection of articles, our aim is to showcase emerging research on this subject.”

Children’s social relationships are integral to how they form views of themselves and how they fit into the world. Research has found that when kids have a warm, loving relationship with their parents, they develop higher self-esteem. However, when they are given endless praise that is disproportionate to their achievements, their self-esteem may plummet. (Here are some compliments you should stop giving your kids.)

Instead of lavish praise, parents should focus on warmth to boost self-esteem, researchers have found—specifically, parents should show interest in their kids’ activities and share joy with them. This makes children feel noticed and valued. According to Brummelman’s own research, children may develop lower self-esteem and sometimes even narcissism when their parents give them lots of extremely positive, inflated praise—phrases like “Wow, you’re amazing!” or “You did incredibly well!” Too much praise can make children worry about disappointing their parents, and may lead to an unhealthy attitude toward failure. Other studies suggest that parents can teach children that failure is beneficial by encouraging kids to ask themselves: “Why didn’t I achieve the result I wanted, and what can I do to change the outcome in the future?”

Additionally, research shows that it’s important for parents to encourage a growth mindset—the belief that kids can develop basic abilities through dedication and hard work. Kids who are praised for their effort instead of their ability, or the end result, are more likely to develop a growth mindset, which will have a positive impact on their confidence.

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