Kids and Self-Esteem: Nature or Nurture?

Kids and Self-EsteemReport cards recently came home. Now, I am more than a little proud to say that I have smart kids. Not that their intelligence is always directly reflected by the grades they bring home, but they are all clever, insightful and able to carry on well-constructed conversations on topics that I probably wasn’t even aware of at their age.  They’re good kids.

But it’s always interesting to me to see how they respond to something like a report card. Report cards are very tangible measure of “success.” I have never been the kind of parent that demands straight As, but I do demand their best work. However, I also take into account extenuating factors that might have influenced their performance and judge accordingly. That being said, I usually get three very different reactions to three very different report cards.

Girl 1 long ago freed herself from the stress of being at the top of her class. She is incredibly smart. But she also knows exactly what she wants to do with her life (and is very good at it), has always been focused on that goal and has made it clear that calculus will play no part in it. Her calculus teacher is, undoubtedly, relieved to hear this. Her report cards tend to be passing (and above passing in the subjects of her own personal interest), but not spectacular across the board – and no one is more ok with this than she is.

Girl 2 is a perfectionist. After starting high school this year in all honors, AP and advanced classes (some high school credits having already been earned in middle school), she took the first ever appearance of a B as a stunning blow. I have heard, in great detail, about how she will never get into college and will most likely end up living on the streets, collecting cans for money as it would appear that is the only skill she is prepared for.

Then there’s Girl 3. Regardless of how much praise or encouragement I provide her older sister, she always seems to be her own worst critic and is constantly comparing herself to others and falling short in her own mind. Girl 3, however, seems to exist in a world in which she is constantly the master of ceremonies at a party being thrown in her own honor. The party usually involves a parade and, as far as I can tell, a lot of music that no one else can hear. Her report card looked almost identical to her older, future-homeless-can-collecting sister’s, but to her, is a clear indicator of guaranteed success as a world renowned unicorn breeder and/or the first professional ballerina in space. She hasn’t made a final career choice yet.

This, now predictable, response to report cards served to remind me of just how different each of my children are. One seems totally settled in who she is. The other constantly strives to be more. And the third is simply blinded by the glitter that seems to fill her head.

As parents, our children’s self-esteem is one of those things that we think about all too often. Whether it’s because we’ve read the latest article or book on the importance of building self-esteem in kids, or because we’ve read the latest article or book on how to keep our children from becoming entitled brats in the “me” generation, self-esteem is at the forefront of many of our parenting struggles.

I have always believed in praising my kids, but I’m not afraid to call them out for their mistakes either. The struggle, though, lies in that delicate balance in between.

I remember early on in my parenting career thinking, “So, this is what parenting is. Basically, spending the rest of your life telling someone that their drawing is AMAZING when in reality it looks like a three-year old did it.” Of course, they were three-years old at the time. But, I wasn’t wrong. As parents, it’s our job to be cheerleaders, encouragers, praisers and all-around-go-to-pick-me-up supporters. This is easy when they succeed, but gets trickier when “success” cannot be so easily defined.

The funny thing is that self-esteem doesn’t always seem to be something that we can teach. As I have watched each of my three daughters evolve, they have each had a different presentation of self-esteem, despite emerging from the same genetic stock, the same cultural background and receiving, for the most part, the same parenting structure.

I haven’t done anything differently to make one child one way and another child another way. Part of it is just nature. But what I have learned, is that self-esteem is something I can reinforce and nurture.

The parenting world constantly reminds us that over-praising is damaging to our kids’ ability to gauge their own responsibility in the outcome of a situation. Constantly telling our kids that they are brilliant can make them believe that they are just misunderstood by teachers when they haven’t worked hard enough to get a good grade. Constantly telling them that they are the best at a sport can lead to repeated failures in an activity that, perhaps, is not their natural forte. And the list goes on.

I will admit, not being a child expert myself (and my kids would agree), I have relied heavily on parenting articles and books to help me navigate these tricky waters. The overall impression that I get from the actual experts is that our kids will not always be the best at everything and it’s not our job to make them believe that they are. They need to be prepared to accept successes and failures equally and feel good about the former, but learn to handle the latter.

When I see my kids’ report cards, I always have to bite my tongue just a little. I sometimes want to scream at Girl 1 for the less than fabulous calculus grade, because I know full good and well that she’s capable. I want to scream at Girl 2 for being so hard on herself. And I really just want Girl 3 to turn off the music in her head for five minutes and go clean her room.

What I do instead, is talk to each of them individually. I ask about each of the classes and corresponding grades. I try a little harder to learn about my child by understanding where their interests truly lie. I find out what factors went into the grade. And I remind them that they are smart, capable and strong. I do push them to do their best. But I try very, very hard not to lay an expectation of perfection on them. And it’s that expectation of perfection that we often, inadvertently, lay at their feet through constant or excessive praise.

Praise is one thing, encouragement is another. As a parent, I want to always encourage my kids. But I want them to know, more than anything else, that I see who they are. Underneath their performance, in any arena, there is a beautiful, kind soul. There is a person who is worthy of love and respect. They each have unique gifts that are theirs and theirs alone. And if that’s what they are able to take away from my less-than-expert parenting, then maybe I’m doing a pretty good job after all.

Anna Strock
Anna is the head writer and Editor-in-Chief at Richmond Mom. She has spent the last 18 years writing, directing creative projects, and trying to be the best mom possible to her three girls. When she's not exploring Richmond for the latest and greatest resources, offerings, and activities, she can be found daydreaming on travel blogs, drinking too much coffee, and running kids to endless activities.