On Brag-Proofing Our Children

Building confidence or her ego? This question has been echoing in my head for the past few weeks. My daughter’s dad and I have spent countless hours telling her how pretty she is, how smart she is, and- whenever she sings us a song or shows off her dance skills we praise her on her talent. It is, after all, our job to build up her confidence, right? Last week I picked her up from daycare and she announced, “Mommy, I’m the best singer in my group”. I had to think about what she had said for a second. Had our nonstop complimenting turned our little girl into an egomaniac?

As a parent, it’s hard not to get caught up in praise-galore. There is nothing wrong with making your kid feel good about herself. It is simply very easy to go overboard. This was corroborated by Diane Ehrensaft, PhD, author of Spoiling Childhood: How Well-Meaning Parents are Giving Children Too Much– But Not What they Need.

The premise is that if you’re constantly letting your child know how great he is, he’ll develop an unrealistically high regard for his abilities– and an ego that might make him insensitive to other people’s feelings (not to mention unpopular).

If you feel like you have been praising a little too much lately do not worry. It is not too late to avoid the proverbial parent-praise trap. In order to control your child’s swagger, teach him to appreciate the things other people can do, but also to accept his own limitations. Generating a sense of modesty from a young age will help your child make friend more easily and learn the value of teamwork. Moreover, you will be helping– not hurting- him over the long term.

And yet, it is still important to keep something in mind. When your two-year-old picks up a box of Legos and says, “Mommy, look how strong I am”, or when your 3-year-old twirls around and sings, “I’m the prettiest princess,”, she is not really bragging. Toddlers are still developing a sense of who they are. And since they’re working hard to master skills like talking in complete sentences and sharing, your praise and encouragement are certainly crucial.Child psychologist Vicki Panaccione, PhD, asserts that kids this age “need to feel secure, so that when they come across other people who are better at certain things, they’ll still feel good about themselves.” In fact, boosting a toddler’s self-esteem can make her less likely to be conceited later on.

It’s all about praising her actions the right way. Focus on her effort instead of the result, and avoid generalizations (e.g. “good girl”). Instead, be specific in your comments, such as, “You didn’t give up when the building blocks kept falling down”. This way your child will understand exactly what it is she did well.

This is also the right time to teach your child that being nice to other people is as important as drawing beautiful pictures. Don’t just compliment a performance. Many child psychologists maintain that children should also be encouraged and complimented when doing chores. Encourage your child when she puts her dishes in the sink or says thank you Grandma. And explain why what he’s done is commendable — cleaning up the dishes helps you; it makes Grandma feel good when he says thank you.”

A friend of mine has two boys aged 4 and 2. Whenever they share their toys or help out around the house, my friend always tell her husband, in front of the kids, “the  boys were so good about cleaning up their room, I don’t know what I would’ve done without them.” When she told me about it, I thought I would also implement it with my daughter. What also helps is when people in your daily life do a good job, point it out to your child.

Once children hit the preschooler years things change. By age 4 or 5, children interact with their peers more regularly. They soon start noticing that some kids are athletic, some live in big houses, and some have lots of toys. My friend was telling me the other day that her son was bragging that his sneakers were cooler than his friend’s because they light up. My friend responded to her son’s remark by saying “It’s not a competition. Your friend’s sneakers are special, too, because they have Batman on them.”

To counter this growing sense of materialism, teach your preschooler to count his blessings. For example, make charity work a regular part of your lives. Collect canned goods as a family for a food drive or spend an afternoon at an elderly home or write a get-well note to someone in your community who’s ill. Giving thanks before a meal will also help take the emphasis away from possessions and get your kids to realize how lucky they are.

Also watch out how you talk about possessions in front of your child. If he hears you brag about the flat-screen TV you just bought, he’ll learn that such behavior is acceptable- and become more materialistic.

Tips for turning the praise around

When You Say: “You’re a great soccer player no matter what happened on the field today.”

It Means: Mommy is not being honest with you.

Instead, Say: “I like that you kept trying even though your team had a rough day.”

When You Say: “Wow, that’s the best drawing I’ve ever seen!”

It Means: Mom thinks every little thing you do is great.

Instead, Say: “Those flowers are very colorful, and I like how your picture tells a story.”



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