Recently I read a quote that said something close to, “If you tell your kids they are kind, they will be kind. If you tell your kids they are brave, they will be brave. If you tell your kids…” I sat staring at the quote and I thought to myself, “I wish it was that simple!”
Don’t get me wrong, there are times when praising our children is important, but we must focus on specific praise instead of general praise. Simply telling our children that they are smart, athletic, awesome, amazing rock stars, doesn’t magically make them so. False praise often has the reverse effect on a child’s self-esteem and confidence.
Years ago, I was sitting in the stands watching a basketball game. The boys on the team were around eight-years-old. I happened to be sitting by the mom of a little boy who was clearly struggling on the court. Shot after shot was attempted and shot after shot was missed. You could see his eyes filling with tears as he ran up and down the court. The coach was yelling at him, and he was crumbling. When the final whistle blew, the tears started to flow.
I walked down the bleachers next to the mom, and as we reached the bottom step, he fell into her arms and sobbed. She gently held his face, looked at him, and said, “Buddy, you were awesome out there! Why are you crying? You are an amazing basketball player!” I stood there in disbelief. On this day, that little boy was far from awesome. He was a complete mess, and he knew it. He was feeling one way and his mom was telling him the complete opposite. Though she was saying this from a place of love, love was not what he heard. He looked up at her, pulled away, and went running off. He was not only upset because he played badly, he was also angry because his mom didn’t understand.
I often share this story with the moms I work with, and they sit staring at me, confused, until one mom usually says, “Well what the heck should you say? You can’t tell him he sucked!” After some laughter, I follow up with, “In these moments, it is less about what you say and more about how you listen.”
We want to fix our children’s hurts. We want to take away their pain. We feel that if we tell them they are awesome, the hurt and the pain will magically evaporate, and all will be good in the world. But that is not the way the world works. Life is filled with hurts, pains, and disappointments and our children need to experience them with us by their side. I call it “sitting in the ick” and it is the first step toward helping your child build confidence.
Our children need us to sit in the ick with them. That means listening, understanding, and validating how they feel. “Hey, buddy, tough game! How are you doing?”
“I was the worst one out there! I couldn’t make a shot! The coach was yelling at me! It was so embarrassing! I hate basketball! I never want to play again!”
Breathe mama! Sit in the ick. Hear him, hug him, and validate him. “I hear you! That must have been hard!” Once you sit in the ick, you can then help your child maneuver through problem-solving.
This little guy will most likely not be the next LeBron James. I am guessing his superpower is going to come in other ways, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get better at basketball. He can practice more, he can shoot hoops with mom or dad, he can do lots of things. And when he plays the next time and makes a few more shots, then you have something specific to compliment him on. “Hey buddy, I noticed you made more shots today! All your hard work is paying off!” You are complimenting him on his work. You are giving him specific praise for what he accomplished. You are not spoon-feeding him confidence; he is internalizing it.
Blindly telling your children they are smart does not make them smarter. Blindly telling your children they are kind does not make them kinder. Blindly telling your children they are strong does not make them stronger. Blindly telling your children they are awesome does not make them awesome.
If your child studied hard for a test, compliment that. If you see your child reaching out to help a hurt child on the playground, compliment that. If your child was scared to death about talking in front of his class but did it anyway, compliment that. But, if your child is dealing with a disappointment, sit in the ick. Praise him for specific accomplishments and sit in the ick when the disappointment comes. The combination of both becomes fertile ground for building confidence and developing self-esteem.