I remember being berated by a fellow parent because I had not attended my son’s fifth grade graduation day. The friend had taken the day off from a hectic work week, and had gone to school early with his SLR camera and various lenses, the better to take pictures of his daughter’s big day. And here I was, a bad mother who had forgotten all about the ‘big’ day! I was quite remorseful, although the careful questioning of my son later led me to believe that his self-esteem was none too damaged by my absence. In my defense, I can only say that in my school days, we graduated just once after grade 10, and not several times in our school life — kindergarten to first grade, primary to middle school etc — so clearly, these ‘graduation days’ did not register to me as important.

Remember our joy when we got praise from a strict teacher or parent? Even a half smile or a ‘well done!’ from the teacher was enough to send us over the moon? Today, it seems we have done an about-turn, where kids are celebrated for every small thing, that was once considered unremarkable just a generation ago. Go to a school day, and it seems as if every kid is receiving a prize for something or the other. In sports, it used to be that the kid who reached the finish line first got a prize – now every kid gets a prize: for participation, sometimes just for showing up. From the days of the stern, authoritative parent and teacher of yore, we have swung to the opposite end of the specturm, and today we praise kids for every little thing they do, however insignificant. “You finished your lunch – wonderful!” “Great job on the swings and slides!” Huh?

The mistake we are making, in my opinion, is that we are confusing mindless praise with building self-esteem. While we definitely want our kids to have a healthy self-esteem, praising indiscriminately is not the way to go about it. High self-esteem should be based on positive behaviours and genuine accomplishments, on achievements obtained through hard work and effort. We don’t want our kids to have a false sense of esteem, that needs extrinsic praise to feel good; we need to build in them a strong internal sense of worth. And this can be developed only through genuine achievement.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be positive and encouraging – but we must not let praise become a drug, something that the kids need, and can’t function without. How can we do this as parents? I read a nice quote from Dr Allan Josephson, MD, chairman of the Family Committee of the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, that I thought I’d share with you. He says, “Self-esteem certainly is important. But we’ve developed this misguided notion that parents should continually reward and praise their children. That doesn’t work either. Healthy self-esteem comes from having parents who are physically and emotionally available, and who set appropriate limits on their [children’s] behaviour, and then help them develop autonomy. It should be a by-product of a healthy relationship with a child, not the goal.”

In other words, parents should focus on helping the child develop a positive yet realistic view of herself in relation to others. What can you do here? Here are some tips:

  •  Instead of focusing on how the child feels about herself, focus on the performance and improvement. Emphasize effort and specific character traits, such as persistence, helpfulness, and consideration. Also, children need to learn that achievement is not a birthright – it is related to the effort they put in.
  • Be realistic. Instead of focusing on how great the child is, highlight her special strengths. The strengths need not be only academic, or art- or sport-related. You can also praise her capability for not giving up easily, her ability to revise until she masters a subject etc. This will help her learn to draw on these strengths instead of relying on outside praise all the time.
  • Don’t shelter the child from failure. Teach her that none of us can be good at everything all the time. When she fails, show her exactly why and provide clear ways for her to succeed the next time. Talk about great people’s failures — the number of times Edison tried before he succeeded in inventing the light bulb, or the number of times Sachin or Dhoni have bad days.

Cut to the present

Three years later, when my son was graduating from middle school to high school. I was determined to be present for his ‘graduation,’ much to his horror – by then he was a teenager, and having his mom come to school and clap for him was all kinds of ‘uncool.’ However, I was stung by my friend’s earlier accusation that I was not a ‘good mother,’ and was determined to prove him wrong. Well, I sat through two hours of clapping for an endless stream of kids who were called up on stage to be rewarded for “good citizenship,” “model behaviour,” “progress in understanding,” “contribution to diversity,” and such other qualities. I was amazed at the imagination of the teachers – no ‘child was left behind.’ But is this a good thing? What do you think – are we going too far?

This article originally appeared here