Do we overpraise our children?

American kids think they are pretty hot stuff.

Despite declining test scores and time spent studying, college students in the United States are more likely than ever to describe themselves as gifted and driven to succeed, according to the American Freshman Survey.

It’s no wonder. Children are growing up in a world where there are no winners or losers and praise is handed out almost as easily as A’s in school. Advanced academic programs are watered down so more students can be labeled “gifted,” and you’d think every kid in the neighborhood is the next Michael Phelps with how many trophies and ribbons are given to last-place finishers.

I’m all for building the self-confidence of kids, but I think we have gone off track somewhere. Instead of letting kids grow actual confidence through achievement, we are condemning them with false praise that only inflates their egos.

Essentially, we are so afraid to let kids fail that we wind up robbing them of any real achievement. True self-esteem comes from true achievement, whether that’s winning a race or learning to tie a shoe. Success can even just be giving effort to a difficult task. Whatever the goal, the achievement of it is what builds actual self-esteem.

Self-esteem doesn’t come from the constant praise of parents who tell their children that everything they do is perfect and they are the best at piano, softball, art and choir. Such a mentality only sets kids up to a ridiculous expectation of perfection. It also creates children who will never try anything unless he or she is going to be the best at it.

The problem is, kids are keen observers. They know when their parents are full of hot air. And though they may come to believe a lifetime’s worth of false praise, they know at their core it isn’t true. We’ve set them up to feel like failures when reality sets in.

What we are creating is a generation of egomaniacs with devastatingly low self-esteem.

I’m not advocating for withholding praise from children or tearing down their self-esteem in any way. There should be unconditional love and meaningful praise.

In our home, I am working on not giving the blanket, superlative praise such as “You’re so smart!”  or “You are such a great soccer player!” or “You’re the best!”

Instead, I try to find something specific about my daughter’s performance. I say things like, “I really liked the way you figured out that problem” or “You really seemed to enjoy playing defense today.” I also ask a lot of questions such as “Why did you use purple for the sky?” or “What was the hardest part of the game today?”

I’m not perfect at it, but I’m trying. Mostly, I want my daughter to know she doesn’t have to be the best to have worth. I also want her to believe in herself not because I say she can do something but because she has seen firsthand that she is capable.

Whether my daughter succeeds or fails, I’ll always be there to rally her on. But in the process, I hope she finds something far more meaningful than my words. I hope she builds a rock-solid self-image based on personal achievements rather than fleeting — and too often false — praise.

Do you think we are raising a generation of egomaniacs? What can parents do to build true self-esteem in their children?


  1. John Charity Spring

    The answer to Stewart’s question is an emphatic Yes. Our society is producing far too many egotistical, spoiled, overindulged children. This must stop, and it must stop immediately.

    The younger parents are primarily to blame. They would rather be friends than parents, and as a result, they heap large amounts of praise on children for accomplishments that are less than mediocre. These children then believe that they are superior, even though they are clearly incapable of even minor success.

    This lack of discipline and honesty is then reinforced by the schools. The left wing egalitarianism that has infested the schools teaches that students must be praised so that no one gets hurt feelings. This has lowered both expectations and the curriculum to the level of the lowest common denominator.

    This Country is rapidly filling up with unskilled, unproductive people. Young parents and modern educators must cease heaping praises on children for mediocrity or this trend will continue.

  2. citygrrl

    You are right to be concerned, Erin, and JCS, let me just say that I have noticed this tendency to praise the simplest task from parents of all ages, not only young parents, and not only left-leaning parents. I have seen a couple of my nieces struggle to finish high school and college. They’re smart and motivated, but I really think they’ve been hampered by a false sense of their abilities given to them by their parents. In other words, they’ve confronted reality. As one writer I read said, “First you must have a self to esteem before you develop self-esteem.” I think confidence comes from the resilency of facing failure, and the struggle of truly achieving something.

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