By Dr. Jan Hittelman

We talk about self-esteem a lot and, of course, we all want our children to have a positive sense of self, but how to help them get there? Research indicates that it takes more than just providing positive feedback. What may be more important is to reinforce and encourage children in developing the skills needed for success, including feeling safe taking risks and understanding that learning requires that we make mistakes and that it’s OK.

Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University, a leading researcher on motivation and what fosters success, notes, “What’s really effective is praising the process that the child is engaging in. Effort, strategy, perseverance, improvement—these things tell them what to do next time”. Thus our feedback should be specific in terms of reinforcing healthy skill development. For example, instead of saying “nice job getting an A in math” we want to focus on the skills that resulted in that A: “you really worked hard on understanding your math concepts by getting extra help from your teacher, keeping up with your assignments, and studying so hard for your tests”. Better yet, encourage your child to identify the specific behaviors that helped them to achieve success.

Dr. Dweck’s research indicates that when children believe that their intelligence is fixed, it can limit their self-confidence. When they are taught that their brains are developing and grow new neurons when challenged, their performance improved.

Many current researchers view self-esteem as being a consequence of a broader range of social and emotional skills, which include things like empathy, problem solving, self-discipline, coping with challenging situations effectively, negotiating, teamwork, having good frustration tolerance, and simply learning how to get along with others. These successes are certainly as critical as academic success and it’s important that parents focus on their children developing these skills as well.

By reinforcing our children’s initiative and effort, they will likely develop the skills necessary for success.