4 Surprising Things That do NOT Promote Humility in Your Children (part 1)

As parents, we walk this fine line between guarding our child’s self-esteem and his/her humility. In a recent post, I described some tactics for fostering healthy self-esteem. Both self-esteem and humility are skills—perspectives, really—that must be taught. They are two sides of a Christ-centered identity cube. (Is it a cube? Hmm…We’ll have to dig into that later.)

Just to get us started on healthy humility, here are two ways NOT to praise our children. Next week, I’ll add two ways NOT to address failure. (Because this started getting long, I’ve divided it into two parts.) How we talk about success and failure go a long way toward that healthy self-esteem we seek for our children…and ourselves.

2 Ways NOT to Praise Our Children

Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to praise, when to praise, and how to praise our children productively. There’s no exhaustive list of the right and wrong times. The most important thing about praising your children (or anyone) is that it must be authentic. We all know those fake one-liners that fall flat before they even reach our ears. I call that “plastic praise.”

  1. Praise them only when they win.

Of course we want to praise our children when they succeed. We should praise them at those times. But we also need to praise them when they fail well. There’s much to be learned in failure, if we handle it properly. Praise their effort, their graciousness toward their opponent, their self-control. Even in success, focus on these things and on God’s blessings (health, strength, intelligence) that brought about their success.

In success: “Wow, Hope, you did well in karate today! I saw how you remembered so much of what you’ve been taught and put it into practice. You fought hard, and you deserved to win! I also saw how you helped your opponent get up at the end. You showed real sportsmanship there. I thank God for giving you a strong body and a kind spirit.”

In failure: “Hey, Hope. I know you’re disappointed that you didn’t win. You fought hard, though. I could tell that you’ve been paying attention in karate class; you used some pretty advanced moves out there. That was some good sportsmanship at the end, too, when you shook hands with your opponent. I’m thankful for your attitude and that you tried so hard.”

  1. Praise them for doing what they are supposed to do anyway.

This involves keeping the rules, doing chores, and other expectations. Save the big praise for improvements or changes that required effort.

There’s no harm in the occasional comment about their ability to follow rules, but a focus on rule-keeping leads to little Pharisees. It bases their value in behavior rather than character. Focus instead on the choices they make to follow the rules even when it’s difficult. Look for demonstrations of strong character and for times when it was difficult to obey but they chose that more difficult route.

There’s also nothing wrong with mentioning their completed chores or other tasks, but emphasize consistency or exceptional attention to the work. Use comments like, “I’ve noticed that you made up your bed every day this week without being reminded.” or “Your bed-making skills have really improved over the last few months.” This type of praise emphasizes improvement and character rather than reducing the praise to a checklist.

In our home, I have to remind the kids to practice their instruments every day, so I don’t praise them for doing it. I will praise one when I tell him to go practice and he does it immediately. I will praise another for improvements in skill level. I’m looking forward to the day when they practice without prompting!

Obedience must be the expectation not the exception.

Let me repeat the exception to this praise policy: When the child has struggled to keep a certain rule or meet a certain expectation or when he/she is learning a new task. In those cases, be quick to praise and recognize even the smallest success!

A person is praised according to their prudence… -Proverbs 12:8a

2 Ways to use praise for maximum impact in #IntentionalParenting. (click to share on twitter)

Come back next week for some thoughts on talking with our kids about their failures. In the mean time, how have you used praise effectively in parenting?

Update 5.11.16: I just read this great, science-backed article on how we phrase praise! Perfect timing.

Update 7.20.16: This discussion/excerpt of The Examined Life by  Stephen Grosz contributes a wealth of observation to our discussion. Think I’m going to read the whole book…


Fostering Healthy Childhood Self-Esteem -or- Why I Don’t Let My Kids Beat Me at Board Games

I won another game of Settlers of Catan® the other night. When the four of us play, it’s like I can’t lose! Actually, it’s just that I refuse to lose on purpose. Even when the game was CandyLand, I played to the best of my ability (not that there’s much skill involved in CandyLand). Am I a mean and selfish parent who doesn’t care about my children’s feelings? No.

There’s this parenting/education idea floating around that we must do everything in our power to enhance our children’s self-esteems. The reasoning behind this idea is solid: that children should know their inherent worth. The application, however, is often misplaced. Parents and educators praise kids for nothing (I call it ‘plastic praise.’), allow them to “succeed” when they do the minimum, and tiptoe around difficulties in fear of hurting a child’s feelings. As a result, children develop a heightened sense of entitlement with no foundation in real skills or achievement. Lest you think this is just my opinion, a recent Scientific American article linked artificially bloated self-esteem with narcissism.

So I don’t fight to win every board game because I’m hyper-competitive…although I am competitive, but beating a ten-year-old just isn’t that impressive. I try to win because I care more about my children’s character than about their feelings.

3 Attitudes to model when playing games with your kids

  1. Do your best. I want my children to see me try hard because much of what comes easily to me (folding a t-shirt neatly, opening a bottle of water, math homework) is difficult for them. They need to know effort is always honorable and everything doesn’t come easily to adults. They need to internalize Paul’s admonition: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23). Sound a little over-the-top to apply this Scripture to a board game? I think it’s a great place to practice, where the consequences are, well, inconsequential.
  2. Win and lose graciously. Too many professional athletes and other media personalities just don’t know how to win—or lose—well. When my children see my humble response to winning, they learn that it’s okay to be happy but not okay to “rub it in.” When they see my honorable response to losing, they learn how to congratulate someone and be happy for that person even as they experience disappointment themselves. It’s never okay to stomp away, to pout, or to act in anger. We always talk about these things after the game.
  3. Play fairly. We don’t cheat. Period. Because winning is not the most important thing about playing. I would rather loose honestly than win dishonestly. And, if my son wins because I played less-than-my-best, he has won dishonestly—as surely as if he himself cheated. Sure, a board game isn’t a big deal, but look what Jesus said: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10). And this one applies so clearly to parenting: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve” (1 Peter 5:2).

3 Actions to practice when playing games with your kids

  1. Shower kids with praise whether they win or lose. We always encourage a good move, acknowledge improvements since we last played, and look for other specific praise-worthy actions within the game itself and regarding their behavior surrounding the game. This is affirmation, not the plastic praise I mentioned earlier. Then, even when they lose, they walk away confidently, knowing they are loved and safe.
  2. Emphasize the fun and togetherness. The point of playing a board game (or other family-centered activity) is to be together. We play to have fun, which tightens our family bonds. We don’t play for bragging rights or for power.
  3. Give advice throughout the game. I want our children to do as well as possible in the game (even if it means they beat me). This is Biblical; Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” We give each other advice, point out good moves, question bad moves, and generally foster a sense of collaboration despite the competition.

Both of my children are getting much better at Settlers and other games we play. I know the fateful day is coming when one of them actually wins, and his or her sense of accomplishment will go “through the roof!” We’ll probably take a picture for posterity. At that point, I’ll really have to focus on loosing honorably. It will be a good day.

I don’t let my kids beat me at board games -*Gasp!*- because I am more interested in their character than their feelings. (Click to Tweet)

What about you? What counterintuitive parenting approach has proven useful to you? Please! Share below.