Developing Self Esteem in Children: Praise vs. Ackowledgement

Thank you Nia House Parent Community for a spirited and thoughtful reflection on the development of self esteem in young children. Below please find links to the articles that helped inform the meeting and some notes capturing the meeting's main points.

What is self esteem and when do you feel it? 

Parents shared that they felt self esteem when they succeeded, took a risk, mastered something, and when they worked hard.

To build the esteem needed to take healthy risks, all people must feel safety, trust, and belonging. The same is true for children.  The origin of trust rests in an infant getting their needs met, in closeness and eye-contact of their beginning years. 

How then, do we create the safety and security for children to take risks and develop their self-esteem?

Toddler parent, Miriam, shared her notes on this portion of the parent meeting:

  • You're their calm foundation. Your calmness keeps them grounded. You should be unchanged. If you make a mistake you should do restorative work. 
  • Remind them that "Your challenges become strengths."
  • Respecting your child means that there is an environment for restorative work. 
  • Give language tools. Empower them to say what they are feeling. Express their boundaries. 
    • "Watching body" to the toddlers means stop and watch. Not touching others work. 
    • Give language to emotions. Give words to what they are feeling. 
    • When they are using a tone that is not respectable you can say "you want to try asking in a different way? If you ask that way I want to say no. But maybe if you ask differently I might say yes"
    • When whining say "I can't understand when you speak like that. I can hear you when you use your normal voice."
  • Don't engage in battles of the wills. Instead you can say "You can do --- that's polite." Instead of "do ----" 

What happens, parents wondered, if I lose my calm? What happens if I speak to my child out of anger or frustration? Maria Montessori writes,

So, what science and practical life both need must surely be accepted from the start as necessary in education. This is the possibility of ‘recognizing one’s own mistakes.’ We must provide this as well as instruction and materials on which to work. The power to make progress comes in large measure from having freedom and an assured path along which to go; but to this must also be added some way of knowing if, and when, we have left the path... Errors made by adults have a certain interest, and children sympathize with them, but in a wholly detached way. It becomes for them one of the natural aspects of life, and the fact that we can all make mistakes stirs a deep feeling of affection in their hearts; it is one more reason for the union between mother and child. Mistakes bring us closer and make us better friends. Fraternity is born more easily on the road of error than on that of perfection.
— The Absorbent Mind, page 248-249

The closing component of the meeting focussed on the different outcomes of praise versus acknowledgement. Do we want children who seek peer, parental, or teacher approval before taking a risk or trying something new? Do we want children to acquire new skills for our benefit? To make art for us? Likely not. According to Alfie Kohn, common compliments children hear - "Your are so smart", "Great job,"  "Your painting is amazing", can create a reliance on praise, steal a child's pleasure, and result in reduced achievement.   

We  want children to create, learn, grow and take risks because they are developing a love of learning and are feeding their interests! To ensure this, it is important to know that praise seldom meets the developmental needs of young children. Children need real, objective feedback on how they attained their success. Please read the attached articles for a more thorough exploration on the damaging impacts of praise and aspirations for perfection.

Can we celebrate our children's successes? Yes! Let's be sincere, let them relish in their own feelings of pride, and provide them with specific feedback on how their efforts impacted their success. 


How Can We Strengthen Children's Self-Esteem? By Lilian Katz

The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids By Po Bronson

Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job!" By Alfie Kohn

Ten Ways to Build Your Child's Self Esteem By Sarah Henry

Nia House

A Montessori Toddler & Preschool Program serving Berkeley since 1974