Helping Children Achieve Real Success

Could our culture of self-esteem be keeping our kids from learning important life lessons?

We have probably all witnessed a scene like this: a child performs in a play, and even though it’s evident that an acting career is not in his future, afterward his parents are raving about his “incredible talent.”

Or perhaps your daughter was on the losing team of an athletic event, but because someone decided that it would be detrimental for “the losers” to walk away empty-handed, she still received a trophy at the end.

Scenes like these play out across America on a daily basis as well-meaning parents seek to encourage their children and build up their confidence. But does this kind of constant affirmation really foster healthy self-esteem? Or does it encourage a false sense that you can do anything “if you just set your mind to it”?

The Problem with Too Much Praise

mom adjusting her son's uniform

Many experts say we have raised a generation of young people who have been told they are brilliant, special, and can do anything – and they believe it. The problem with this is that many parents left out some important information necessary for achieving that success – specifically, that it takes effort, perseverance, and taking advantage of resources. Just because you have an ability doesn’t mean you don’t have to work to be successful.

“We live in a time when high self-esteem is encouraged from childhood, when young people have more freedom and independence than ever, but also far more depression, anxiety, cynicism, and loneliness,” says Dr. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – And More Miserable Than Ever Before. “Today’s young people have been raised to aim for the stars when it is more difficult than ever to get into college, find a good job, and afford a house. Their expectations are very high as the world is becoming more competitive, so there’s a huge clash between expectations and reality. The idea that everybody wins or gets what they want does not resemble real life in the least.”

Learning from Loss

So what can parents do if they truly want to help their children be successful?

As painful as it may be, parents can help their children recognize that everybody has strengths and weaknesses. There may be things your child enjoys that she isn’t particularly great at, but instead of steering her away from those things to something else, why not let her enjoy the ride? Instead of telling her how fantastic she is, ask her if she gave it her all.

We need to remind ourselves that letting children fail and lose is not necessarily a bad thing. It actually helps them understand that no one ever wins all the time in life. There is no better time to learn that lesson than in childhood when your parents can help you learn how to move forward. Loss and failure can be very positive and motivating when handled correctly.

If the goal is to prepare your child to be successful in life, our job as parents is to teach them life skills – not just make them feel good.

Three ways you can help your children:

  1. Don’t puff them up. Children often know false praise when they hear it. But even if they don’t, it still won’t help them feel better about themselves in the long run.
  2. Allow them to struggle. This gives them a chance to experience the sense of accomplishment that comes from achieving a goal. Finding success after keeping at something difficult helps children learn they are capable.
  3. Teach them how to lose. Throughout life we all experience loss. This is why learning how to handle it gracefully is an important skill to develop early on.

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