Feeling good

Are we going too far in our drive to boost our children’s confidence, and giving them too much of a sense of self importance? Research suggests that unrealistic self-esteem is not always that good for children!


Is high self-esteem really the key to a child’s happiness and success? Traditionally, parenting advice has seemed to suggest that low self-esteem meant your child could easily become a low achiever with poor career prospects, criminal behaviour and alcohol and drug addiction thrown in for good measure.

No wonder parents enthusiastically embraced the idea of praising their children for every word they uttered, picture they painted and nursery rhyme they recited! But it seems that the high self-esteem bandwagon may have gone too far.


Some psychologists are now suggesting that high self-esteem may not be the all-powerful remedy for success: and low self-esteem cannot be seen as the cause of all social ills.

Research suggests that inflated levels of self-esteem in young adults may be linked to ignoring advice and doing dangerous things like drinking and driving. Young people with overly high self-esteem may also be less realistic about how much other people like them!

And although low self-esteem is linked to depression, it is by no means driving children and young people towards anti-social behaviour. Some American research even indicated that criminals and drug users have higher levels of self-esteem than the general public.

A problem with self-esteem is that it is very difficult to define and measure. The most common method is through self-reports but small children are notoriously unreliable. They may not be good enough with words yet to describe the way they feel about themselves.

Young people with overly high self-esteem may also be less realistic about how much other people like them!


While the debate continues, parents are out there trying to do the best for their children. What does all this mean for them?

One thing is clear: psychologists agree that telling children they are great all the time can be damaging. The empty words that are often spoken to children such as ‘great job’, ‘you’re amazing’ don’t actually tell children anything and children see straight through them.

Over-praising can interfere with a child’s ability to self motivate, cope with failure and work to overcome challenges. Children who have become over-reliant on praise will frequently look to others for approval for everything they do.

As well as over-praising, parents need to be careful about general praise. In a study of four-year-olds doing a drawing task, half received general praise about their drawing (you are a great drawer) and half received specific praise (that is a great cat you have drawn). In the next drawing task all children were told they had failed to draw correctly. The children who had received general praise lost interest in the task, but the children who had been praised specifically responded much better and came up with ways to improve their drawings.

The children who received general praise about their drawing began to believe that they had a drawing ability and did not know what to do when this was criticised. But the specific praise given to the other children did not lead to false confidence.

Parents also need to praise effort and perseverance as this highlights for the child what they need to do next time. They also shouldn’t be afraid to criticise their children: there will be times when they need it. But it is important to criticise the actions and not the child.

Children need to be realistic about their abilities rather than deluded into thinking that everything they do is great. So, constructive comments that help children see what went wrong and how to put it right next time are helpful – praise should always contain an element of learning.

Over-praising can interfere with a child’s ability to self motivate, cope with failure and work to overcome challenges.

Good praise

  • Should be genuine.
  • Is for a particular accomplishment rather than a general characteristic (‘you worked hard’ rather than ‘you are really clever’).
  • Should focus on effort and perseverance rather than outcome.
  • May contain a learning element ( ‘your singing was great because you practiced really well’).

Bad praise

  • Goes over the top. Children need to develop their own motivation: it shouldn’t just stem from your praise.
  • Gives an empty message ( ‘Wow’, ‘Well done’, ‘Amazing’, ‘That’s great’ and so on).
  • Is insincere (when your tone of voice and facial expression do not match your words).
  • Has a sting in the tail (‘Well done for tidying your bedroom. It’s a pity you can’t do it without being asked’).


Teach children how to praise themselves. This isn’t about putting others down (eg ‘I am the best in class at reading’). It’s about the child comparing their past and present performance (eg ‘I am better at reading now than I was six months ago’).

Set realistic goals. Constant failure is really harmful, so help your child set goals using small steps which give feelings of success.

Help your child learn to deal with failure. Everyone fails at one time or another – the key is to learn from it. So when your child doesn’t succeed teach them to look at what they did and find ways to do something different next time.

Spend time with your child and be available. This lets them know they are important to you.

Give them some responsibility – this helps them to feel useful, valued and trusted.

Don’t compare your child with their siblings or peers – encourage participation because they enjoy it, not because they are the best and want to beat others.


Sue, mum to six-year-old Jake, says: ‘I have always thought it is important to make him feel good about himself but not in an unrealistic way. There is no point in him thinking he is great at something when actually he is rubbish. I think he’s realistic – he knows what he is good at, like maths, but he also knows when he has to work hard just to keep up with the other kids, like in reading.’


Sophie from Surrey says : ‘At six, Sarah always asks for my opinion about things and can’t seem to make decisions on her own. Even when she does something really well, she doesn’t think that it is good enough. I give her loads of praise so I don’t know why she is so negative about herself.’


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