As parents we seek to instil confidence in our children, right from their shaky first painting through to their muddled attempts at quadratic equations. Often, regardless of whether something is particularly good or not, we encourage them by saying it's great. But is this helpful?
Of course we want our children to believe they are attractive, intelligent and successful, even if their friends are smarter, prettier or wittier, but getting the balance right is tricky. If you veer the wrong way on the self-esteem tightrope, you could wind up with a bratty, arrogant child who believes he or she is better than everyone else and is unable to cope with any kind of criticism or failure.
Confidence levels soar
Research suggests that confidence is at an all-time high among young people in the US. Indeed, studies carried out by the US psychologist Jean Twenge revealed that American students now expect to work less and achieve more.
Twenge found that university students now rate themselves as more gifted in subjects, such as writing, even though their actual writing ability has gone down since the 1960s.
It seems students also possess an overinflated view of their future. In the late 1980s, almost half of these American students studied for six or more hours a week, but by 2009 only just over a third studied for this long. Despite the drop in working hours, the number of students saying they were driven to succeed increased over the same period.
A sense of entitlement
Local experts have recognised a similar trend in the UAE. "Some children in the Emirates, regardless of their cultural background, have a sense of entitlement," says Clare Smart, a counsellor at Lifeworks Counselling and Development, Dubai (www.lifeworksdubai.com). "This view that they are entitled to be successful, attractive, or wealthy weakens the individual (and the culture as a whole) as the attitude to work less, but expect more, becomes ingrained."
Parents, inevitably, have played a part in creating a generation of supremely confident young people, but to what effect? "It is highly documented that a positive self-image is important if a child is to mature into a psychologically healthy adult. However, a child with an overinflated ego can have significant problems," says Dr Amy Bailey, a clinical psychologist at kidsFIRST Medical Center, Dubai (www.kidsfirstmc.com). "If they believe themselves to be right, they are much less likely to listen and respond to advice from others, including parents and teachers."
Indeed, research by Forsyth and Kerr of Virginia Commonwealth University in the US discovered that weaker students actually performed worse if they received encouragement aimed at boosting their self-worth. The encouragement appeared to remove the need to work hard.
A realistic view of strengths and weaknesses
The crux of the matter is that self-esteem and confidence are two very different things. "Self-esteem is about having an accurate view of our strengths and weaknesses," explains Smart. A child with high self-esteem values himself enough to not feel the need to compare himself with others or to exaggerate his own ability. He believes that he is enough just as he is.
While as parents we might have a tendency to overpraise our children, the rest of society will not, which is why we need to build a grounded sense of self in our kids, rather than an overinflated and unrealistic idea of who they are.
"It is important as a parent that we monitor the level of praise that we provide to our children. Praise should be related to specific achievements and skills and be appropriate to what has been achieved," says Bailey.
"Make sure that errors and mistakes are noted and commented on but in a nurturing way. For example: 'That was a great try but I think you could improve by…' This helps a child learn that it is OK not to be perfect and teaches them the skills to begin evaluating themselves."
In an ideal world, praise shouldn't come from being "clever" but through acknowledging and affirming effort. "This can be achieved by rewarding effort and not the result and keeping any compliments realistic and grounded," says Smart. For example, instead of telling your child his painting is the best painting you've ever seen, let him know that you love his picture, the colours he chose and that you're proud of him for putting so much effort in.
Creating healthy self-esteem
Be realistic about your child's strengths and weaknesses. Let him know what you consider him to be good at and offer support to help him improve in areas he struggles with.
Model a healthy attitude to this by voicing what you yourself struggle with and how you plan to improve.
Encourage your child to recognise qualities in others based on effort rather than results, and based on personality traits rather than physical appearance.
Support healthy risks and encourage your child to try something new even when there's the possibility of failure. Without risk there's little opportunity for success.
Resist comparisons with siblings or friends - even positive comparisons can be damaging because your child may find it hard to live up to the image you've created. Instead, let your child know you appreciate him for the unique individual he is.