Overpraised Children

The fallacy in feeding our youth’s self-esteem
From the May 2006 Trumpet Print Edition

“I am even more amazing than I thought.” “Today I will remind myself that I am a marvel.” These syrupy “thoughts for the day,” found in the book Today I Am Lovable: 365 Positive Activities for Kids, represent a myth that infects modern child rearing and education. This false idea, intended to help our children, actually damages them.

What is it? That praise is not just the best, but in fact the only, motivator for children.

This idea saturates children’s programs and interactive toys and games. When a child does something right, rather than a simple “That’s right!” they say, “Wow—you’re really smart!”

American schools in particular emphasize self-esteem as the chief virtue, divorced from achievement or even effort. Thus, children are routinely sheltered from the sting of failure—and therefore trapped in a sunny fantasy world in which bad behavior and poor performance have no negative consequences.

The kernel of truth in this myth is that children grow up and perform best in a positive environment—that an enduring climate of criticism can be withering. Of course we want our children to be confident, well-adjusted and happy. But overpraise is not the way to get them there.

In a book called The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America’s Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem, Maureen Stout pinpoints several destructive myths that have taken root in our educational system—including: high expectations damage self-esteem; evaluation is punitive, stressful and damaging to self-esteem; discipline is bad for self-esteem; effort is more important than achievement; it is the teacher’s, not the student’s, responsibility to ensure learning.

Let’s face facts: High self-esteem is wildly overrated. Repeated studies have proven that bloated self-worth doesn’t improve a child’s academic performance, strengthen his interpersonal relationships, help him avoid self-destructive behavior or translate into adult success. In fact, it often hinders a person in all these areas.

Is this any surprise? A child raised on the notion that he is a marvel—just as he is—has no motivation to improve.

Stout makes a strong case that these ideas, which infect our public schools from kindergarten through college, lead directly to narcissism (preoccupation with self), detachment from one’s community, rejection of absolute truth, and cynicism. She also shows a correlation with the dumbing down of curricula, grade inflation, loss of motivation (among teachers as well as students), an unmerited sense of entitlement and the ridiculing of critical thinking skills.

Do we really want our children thinking, “I am even more amazing than I thought”? As one educator put it, who in the world wants to hang out with someone who thinks like that? Studies have shown that self-esteem can actually become self-delusion—a conviction that you are more popular, more capable, more loved, than is really the case. Such self-centered attitudes only alienate other people. At the same time—almost paradoxically—the overpraised child can be addicted to approval from others.

Children who are taught self-worth with no link to personal achievement generally face crushing shocks when reality finally comes knocking, challenging their artificially high opinions of themselves. As we approach adulthood, praise dries up; life’s trials get tougher. The overpraised child, having long been shielded from small failures, finds sudden, big failures overwhelming.

When we look at this issue spiritually, we really see its sinister side. The originator of the self-esteem movement is Satan, whose heart was lifted up because of his beauty, who was obsessed with his own brightness (Ezekiel 28:17). This spirit being, the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2:2), pumps our carnal human nature with his egomaniacal attitudes. (Our free booklet What Is Human Nature? explains this truth.) In other words, our children already get enough training in loving themselves above all others without any prodding from misguided educators and overeager parents.

God, eminently aware of our vain proclivities, filled His Bible with warnings against flattery and insincere praise like these: “… a flattering mouth worketh ruin”—“A man that flattereth his neighbour spreadeth a net for his feet” (Proverbs 26:28; 29:5). In Psalm 49, God spells out “the fate of those who have foolish confidence” (verse 13, Revised Standard Version), and it isn’t pretty.

That’s not to say that praising our children is wrong, of course. We should think on what is praiseworthy and commendable (e.g. Philippians 4:8). But empty, indiscriminate praise means nothing. Children should receive sincere, specific praise when appropriate. When they scrawl out a crayon picture of clouds, “That’s gorgeous!” is less meaningful—and less truthful—than something along the lines of, “I like how you’re using different colors,” or, “Wow—you’re learning how to draw on paper what you see outside.”

Such conversations also lend themselves more to your giving gentle guidance on how to improve the next time. Handled correctly, constructive criticism won’t make our children flinch. We want them to accept it as a boon to personal growth and a crucial part of life. Loving correction, graciously received, is one of life’s greatest gifts. That is a lesson even our children can begin to understand.

Rather than trying to inject our children with self-worth, we need to help them see reality—the way God helps His children. And reality is this: You are a child. As you strive, you grow. You have much yet to learn. But I love you, and always will—even when you fail—as long as you never give up.

Consider: It is only when we recognize our own inadequacies that we can see the need to seek God’s help to live the right way—the way that will bring happiness. As Jesus Christ told us, “Without me ye can do nothing”—clearly the opposite of self-worth. In the end, our children will need to recognize, deep in their heart, that, like all human beings, they can do nothing without God.