Self-Esteem and Discipline

My concern with the current self-esteem movement we see in all facets of life is that it encourages approaches that address the person, rather than the action. For example, rather than saying, “I’m proud of you for getting such a good grade,” simply saying, “Well done!” is more meaningful and sends a more empowering message. Saying, “I see you made your bed” fosters feelings of self-competence. In contrast, saying, “I’m so proud of you for making your bed,” encourages making decisions to please the parent.

Acknowledgment accomplishes the intent of praise but without the disadvantages. It fosters feelings of being worthwhile, without relying on the approval of others. The long-range effect is to engender self-confidence, self-reliance, and self-discipline, rather than dependence on others for feelings of one’s self-worth.

Young children generally want to behave in ways that please their parents. However, we really want our children to learn to do the right thing, not because someone is dangling a carrot in front of them, but because it is the right thing to do. When people do the right thing—when they make good decisions, when they behave in a responsible manner—they feel good and the need for any type of discipline is diminished. They learn to value themselves. Developing responsibility—rather than obedience to please—is more advantageous for both children and parents. The children gain confidence and the parents promote responsibility. Parents who foster this approach give children a precious gift that is treasured for a lifetime.

An easy way to distinguish between praise and acknowledgment is to consider whether the comment would be made to an adult. If the comment would not be made to an adult, then it is probably patronizing praise.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson so aptly put it, “The reward for a thing well done is to have done it.”