On self-esteem and praise

Born to Chinese parents and raised in California, I grew up with a foot in each of two cultures, each with different and sometimes clashing ideas about parenthood.  A good example of that clash can be seen in the furor raised a couple of years ago by law professor Amy Chua’s memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  Chua portrays American parenting as too soft on kids, and adopts a somewhat extreme version of an opposing cultural stereotype: the Tiger Mom, the super-strict and controlling Chinese mother who pushes her daughters to excel, whatever the cost.  Readers and reviewers generally regarded Chua’s methods as over the top; indeed, at one point in the book, even her mother advises her to back off.

But the book brings cultural values into sharp relief.  Beginning in the late 80s, Americans were bombarded with messages about self-esteem: always treat children like winners, and they’ll be winners.  Some parents scratched their heads at the value of giving every child in a tournament a trophy just for playing; some teachers felt hamstrung by educational wisdom that discouraged pointing out students’ mistakes.

And through it all were questions of praise: is it okay to praise your children?  When, and for what?  Is there such a thing as too much praise?  Too little?

Research suggests at least some answers.  Overall, psychologists believe that the self-esteem movement of the 80s and beyond was a failed cultural experiment; artificially boosting a child’s self-esteem didn’t pay off as hoped.  Indeed, as Roy Baumeister and his colleagues argue in a 2003 article, the use of “indiscriminate praise” may instead breed narcissism and an unrealistic sense of entitlement.  Bottom line, they recommend that praise only be used “as a reward for socially desirable behavior and self-improvement.”  To a large extent, I agree.  Children need the honest but non-shaming and supportive feedback of adults to develop both an accurate self-concept and genuine self-esteem, and appropriately given praise plays an important role.

But I’d like to change the language a bit.  Writing as a psychologist to psychologists, Baumeister unsurprisingly frames his conclusion in terms of behaviorism: praise is “a reward for socially desirable behavior.”  The implication is that parents should know what they want from their children, and shape good behavior by the strategic use of rewards, including proper praise.

My concern, though, as a father, a family life educator, and a Christian, is that viewing parenting through the lenses of desired behavior may tempt us to neglect the emotional and spiritual quality of the parent-child relationship.  Let me put it this way: praise has its place, and thoughtful parents shouldn’t shy away from it.  But it must be more than just a technique for shaping behavior, a strategy for parents to get what they want from their kids.

Sometimes, as parents, we need to break through our self-centered concerns about how our children’s behavior affects us, break through to the child in whom God delights, the child whom Jesus would have embraced.  In our best moments, praise would be a heartfelt and spontaneous expression of delight in our children; when that happens, the actual words of praise our children hear matter less than the delight they see in our eyes and feel through our arms.

And that way of thinking can help us to better understand our relationship to God.  More on that in the next post.