Turns out children are feeling pretty good about themselves lately. Maybe a little too good.
As reported on the website Connect with Kids (http://www.connectwithkids.com/), a study by researchers at San Diego State University found that high school seniors are bursting with more self esteem than a generation (or two) ago. For example, in 1975, 49% of them believed that they will be successful at their job. Today, 65% do.
It’s nice to feel confident and instilling that “World, here I come!” attitude is actually a Free Range Kids goal. But (there’s always a but) instilling baseless self-congratulation is not. And I have to admit, it’s a fine line figuring out when to say, “What a wonderful letter you wrote for grandma!” and when to go, “Do you think you could possibly put one OUNCE of effort into your thank you note?”
It’s not just parents busy dealing with praise inflation, either. The other day I was on a field trip with my fifth grader to a museum all about the American Revolution. The guide had the class study a painting of Washington and his troops, and then she asked, “What do we see in this picture?”
Up went a hand: “Queen Elizabeth!”
The guide smiled encouragingly. “I don’t think the Queen was here in America…”
You don’t think so? Jeez– I KNOW so. So should the kids! That’s what the field trip was for, right? Learning some history. The Queen was NOT in this picture. In fact, there were no WOMEN in the picture. In fact, it was a picture of MEN fighting a WAR in AMERICA against a KING who, by the way, was not married to Queen Elizabeth and who also was NOT in the picture because he was back home in ENGLAND.” God forbid we should roll our eyes and say, “Hey kid — back to the history books!”
Although that may start happening soon. My sister-in-law lives in a school district to end all school districts in suburban Chicago and the superintendent there, Eric Twadell, is worried about the same issue: Too much praise for too little anything. In an editorial in the high school magazine (glossy as Newsweek) he wrote, “For too many years educators have worshipped at the altar of self-esteem theory, wrongly believing that if we simply help students feel better about themselves, their reading, writing and arithmetic will improve. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
It’s not that I’m all for instilling low self-esteem. I don’t believe in squashing egos or squelching the curiosity. Encouragement is good. But maybe the antidote to meaningless praise is not a surfeit of discouragement but more opportunities for kids to really succeed at something, instead of just being told how great they are.
That’s where Free Ranging comes in. A kid who goes and gets the family’s groceries really has done something in the world. Ditto, a kid who makes the dinner. Ditto a kid who goes and brings grandma her card instead of just scribbling a note and having mom drop it in the mail.
There are a lot of things kids used to do that garnered them the kind of self-esteem we have taken to artificially instilling with pats on the back for not-very-special “specialness.” Send kids back out into the world with tasks to complete, new situations to navigate, even those old fashioned trees to climb and self-esteem will come as naturally as bug bites and bumps. That way when we say, “Good for you!” we’ll mean it.
And they’ll know it.