General Question

janbb's avatar

Parents: How can we instill both self-esteem and a desire to succeed in our children?

Asked by janbb (54361points) January 16th, 2011

It seems that in America today there has been a great – mainly laudable – push to remove some of the competiveness in early childhood learning and instill a great sense of self-esteem in our children. (Every child is the “Most Valuable Player.”) This is certainly a laudable goal but it seems we may at times be sacrificing some of the rigour which makes for success and initiative as seen in our decllining global leadership. An Asian-American mother, “the Tiger Woman”, has written a memoir in which she details the strict upbringing methods she used to raise her daughters in the old Chinese way (practicing the piano several hours a day, no play dates, not accepting homemade cards if they weren’t well done) and her partial success with it. She is being roundly criticized in the “Mommy Wars” and I agree with the crtiticism. But how do we raise kids with the ability to strive for success while still loving themselves?

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22 Answers

Coloma's avatar

I’d say allow the child THEIR desires and opinions, honor their feelings, allow them to make as many choice for themselves as possible, and, most importantly, redefine your ideas about ‘success.’

I have always encouraged my daughter, ( who is 23, self sufficient and an amazing artist )
to do her ‘own thing’ regardless of others opinions, and to never, EVER, allow anyone else to define what THEY think she ‘should’ be doing.

Many, many, parents are highly invested in their childrens successes, acomplishments, as a narcissistic vehicle to stroke their own egos and unmet desires.

Bah humbug!

I define ‘success’ as LOVING what you do aside from monetary gain, being true to yourslef, and having the courage to follow your own path inspite of others protests or opinion.

I raised a free spirited and creative child with huge emphasis on artistic expression and a great love of the natural world and and the confidence and self esteem to say ’ PISS OFF’ to anyone that criticizes her choices. ;-)

The world is full of puppets, dancing to the tunes of others. I advocate pulling ones own strings. ;-)

nebule's avatar

First of all @janbb Absolutely sparkling question, thank you for asking it… I love these questions that really really make us think.

Secondly, @Coloma… fantastic answer! I want to be this type of mother. As someone that is creative but has had that squashed over the years, I’m struggling to allow myself freedom to be me and would have benefited from your approach!

Because of my own struggles I find this really difficult to instil into my son, along with the fact that he seems at times naturally apprehensive of the world and people. However, I constantly praise him and his efforts and I listen to him. I try my utmost to give him a happy and secure home and I hope that through this he will feel safe and able to deal with the world. Like @Coloma I accept him for everything that he is and that must be completely unconditional as he grows and makes decisions I might not choose for myself. It is his life.

In terms of striving to succeed, I think there is a natural ingrained desire in us to succeed, genetically perhaps as a form of survival and I think that if we feel secure our ability to succeed will come. However, in order that we don’t tread on everyone as we go through the world I think it’s necessary to teach compassion; understanding and sympathy for others… but to ultimately know that you are number one and to take care of your biggest asset…your own life.

Seaofclouds's avatar

I agree with what @Coloma wrote. My son is 8 (soon to be 9) and I try to encourage him to do the best he can. We celebrate his successes and learn from his mistakes/failures. If he brings home a bad grade, we figure out why he got the bad grade first and then go from there (he had a habit of rushing through reading his questions and possible answers). If he is struggling with something else (like hitting the ball in baseball, throwing a spiral with the football, etc) we work with him about it. To me, those are things that just aren’t worth getting angry or upset about. Instead, they are a perfect opportunity to teach problem solving and how to work through things.

We also try to encourage his creativity. He talks about all these things he’d like to invent/build. When he does this, we never say he can’t do it or it’s impossible, instead we talk to him and ask him what he thinks he would need to build those things and we give him other ideas of what he could use. I can picture him in our garage building random things if he had the tools and supplies as a teenager and I love it.

I also agree with @Coloma‘s definition of success. I hate when people try to define success merely on financial gain. I know so many people that make a great deal of money, but they are very unhappy with various aspect of their life because it all carries over from one area (work) to others (family, fun, etc).

john65pennington's avatar

This is one big plus, that came from the Leave It To Beaver Show, of the early 60s. by todays standards, we will never have that “Wally and Beaver” syndrome, produced on that show. the two brothers were given excellent examples, by their parents, of what a persons self-esteem was all about. both brothers were encouraged to be their own person and make their own tracks in life.

To me, this is what having a two-parent family is all about. direction and guidance from a man and a womans point of view. i really do not believe this exists in a one-parent home setting. the one parent does not have the time needed to be a true leader, for their children, 100% of the time.

the100thmonkey's avatar

The answer to such a question is culturally bound by how we define ourselves in relation to others and the broader society, and how we define “success”.

I would take issue with your assertion that removing competition from the classroom is a good thing. Competition and positive feedback on success are key motivators for my two boys. I’m not in a position to definitively state that this is cultural (they’re bicultural and bilingual – Scottish and Japanese, incidentally) but I know that they have learned a great deal from competitive activities. In my opinion, the key is how you teach them to deal with failure.

In terms of behaviour, I very much adhere to the idea that children must be given clear boundaries and understand that there are consequences to their behaviour. My wife thinks that I’m a little strict with them, but this derives from a cultural difference. They enjoy a far softer approach to parenting from my wife.

In terms of state involvement – education for the vast majority of kids – I think that there are chronic and deep-rooted problems with its approach, both in the UK and the US. Japanese secondary education, to my mind, sounds like an oppressive joke… and yet the system regularly produces brilliant mathematicians, engineers and scientists. Again, this is a clash in cultural values, which are determined by the definitions I alluded to above.

There are a couple of TED talks on the topic here and here. I found them very informative. They outline certain aspects of the problem, namely the mistakes that the state has been making.

BarnacleBill's avatar

@john65pennington I don’t believe a two-parent family is necessary for raising successful children. There are plenty of failures that came from two-parent homes. It does take setting the expectation of success, teaching children to correct their mistakes, and making the education of children a household priority for all adults. That means if the choice is a tutor or an new car, you fix the old car and pay for the tutor. If it means going out with your buddies during the week to watch a ball game, or checking math homework, you forego the game and help with the homework.

If American families treated learning the way they treat sports participation, things would be different. You are more likely to get an academic scholarship than a sports scholarship if you excel. Rather than tell my children to have a nice day, and take it easy, every morning when I put them on the bus, I told them to work hard today and do your best work.

marinelife's avatar

I think that we praise them for their efforts, but instill goals in them.

Cruiser's avatar

Lead by example plain and simple. It also involves holding them by the hand and showing them the things they need to do and how to do it.

The hardest part is helping them understand only one person can come in first and that second place or last place is an ok place to be and only to be measured against their own effort put forth and not against what other kids did.

Coloma's avatar

I believe that hardcore competition is terrible for self esteem.

I had zero desire to be the soccer mom type. Gah!

I had a friend once that was the poster child for the stereotypical sports parent, it was more than I could bear. The woman was out of control, needless to say, that friendship had a very short shelf life.

wundayatta's avatar

My kids are competitive—but generally in the things they are good at. My son refuses to partake in any team sport or competitive sport. He did gymnastics for a year, but he never wanted to be on the team. He is proud of his physical skills—he does martial arts now—but he still doesn’t want to compete.

We’ve encouraged him to consider competing, but we’ve never forced him to. He is also a very good pianist for his age (except for the kids of Chinese dragon mothers). It’s mostly because he gets obsessed with things. He has been obsessed with Fur Elise and now plays it quite well. He’s obsessed with smartphones and tablets now. He could probably outsell any salesman in and of the phone stores. In fact, he did at Best Buy before Christmas. Some stranger thought he could sell his services to elderly people who had no clue what was going on.

However, he’s not much into reading and writing and math. As a result my wife spends a lot of time with him, making sure he does his reading and writing a math homework. Perhaps an hour or more each night. In addition, he practices piano, although, since he’s been working on this piece, he’s been doing it on his own for long periods of time—at least an hour on most days—at least, while he was learning the piece. Lately, not so much.

This morning, my daughter told us she was back up to an A in biology. I do expect straight As and I let her know it. She asked me, “What if I got Cs?”

I said, “I would be disappointed.
“How about Bs?”
“I’d still be disappointed.”
She pouted a bit.
“I know you can do better,” I said.

I expect the best she can do. My wife was saying things like she would be happy whatever my daughter did, but I don’t want to say that. I think that working under no expectations is worse that working with high expectations. I asked my parents what they expected of me, and they always told me they had no expectations. Bullshit! They had all kinds of expectations; they just wouldn’t tell me what they were. What that mean was that no matter how well I did, I never knew if I was doing well enough. Which caused me all kinds of self-esteem problems.

I think kids need to know exactly where they are in terms of what their parents think. I also think it needs to be within the children’s capabilities. So if Chinese mothers have very high academic expectations, but their kids can do it, then their kids can be secure about where they stand. I Coloma’s daughter knows exactly where her mother will support her and that she expects her to be creative and make her own choices, and her daughter is capable of this, then she should be secure about who she is and what she can do.

I don’t think one size fits all in parenting. Parents are different and children are different. But I do think the principle I mentioned—that children should know their parents expectations, but those expectations should be within the grasp of their kids—is a good rule of thumb. I think there should be a balance between parents controlling children’s lives and children having a say in what they do and how they want to spend their time. I think that balance changes as children get older and as they demonstrate a greater capacity for good decision-making.

So much can go wrong, though. Parents can be too strict and too untrusting and they can be too loose and uncaring. They can have high expectations but never communicate them, so their children grow insecure. They can be prejudiced against some types of work or ambitions and forbid their children to pursue their interests. Then again, they can provide structure for their kids that the kids wouldn’t have otherwise and due to that, they would get lost with no goals at all—whether realistic or unrealistic.

The problem is that no one size fits all. So it’s hard to set rules for parenting. It’s hard to even set principles for making parenting decisions, I think. There is a lot of disagreement about methods. We can offer each other our experience. We can make decisions. At times, we can criticize and even take children away from parents. But that is an extreme. So much parenting behavior is allowable even if many don’t agree with the way it is done.

I’m not going to condemn Tiger Mom’s methods. In fact, I’m going to borrow some ideas from them—or rather, I borrowed them years ago when I noticed how well Asian kids were doing, and I read books about Asian families. I’m also going to include @Coloma‘s ideas (or have been doing so for many years), and I have gotten other ideas from courses in psychology and education, and communication workshops and probably hundreds of other sources of experience and information.

The bottom line, I think, for me, is that my kids feel good about themselves for good reasons; not just because they exist. I suppose others might disagree with that. Some may believe existence is all that’s necessary to feel good about themselves, and to some extent, I am sympathetic to that idea. But we’re also evolutionary animals, and we must act or die. There is no standing still. Plus, my kids need to have the skills to help them survive. I want them to feel good about their ability to survive.

I love my kids. I want them to be able to what they want and to live a life they are happy with. They may not choose to do something I like, but as long as it is a self-respecting life, then I think I will have done the best I can.

nebule's avatar

@wundayatta I agree with a lot of what you said, apart from this particular bit, which I find…sad.

“This morning, my daughter told us she was back up to an A in biology. I do expect straight As and I let her know it. She asked me, “What if I got Cs?”
I said, “I would be disappointed.
“How about Bs?”
“I’d still be disappointed.”
She pouted a bit.
“I know you can do better,” I said.”

I know you can do better…. at the expense of what though?

flutherother's avatar

We all want the best for our children and want them to make the most of their abilities but our love for them should not be conditional upon them being anything other than what they are.

faye's avatar

I just wanted to comment on the self-esteem issue. The child knows if he has done his best or done very little. To get the same praise for both efforts has to confuse him, or make him think we’re stupid.

the100thmonkey's avatar

@wundayatta: “working under no expectations is worse than working with high expectations.”

This is the truest thing I’ve read in a long time.

wundayatta's avatar

@nebule At what expense? Oh, maybe a couple of hours on Facebook.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

Lead by example. Live a full life as a parent, so they want a full life as well. Same for self-esteem.

nebule's avatar

@wundayatta I was kinda thinking more along the lines of other subjects she may be interested in more…a subject to do with a potential career choice maybe or other extra-curricular activities that would further a career.

augustlan's avatar

[mod says] This is our Question of the Day!

Earthgirl's avatar

I have to agree with nebule here a bit. Although I think it is great for parents to encourage their children to do all they can to maximize their potential, my experience with this gives me mixed feelings. My parents always let us know that they knew we had brains, and talent and not to waste it. They praised us when we did well. We knew they loved us. All to the good. But does any person always do their best? Can’t life, emotions, circumstances beyond our control, sometimes lead us to doing less than our personal best? In those cases maybe it would be better to inquire in a loving way why the A was not achieved and if there is anything helpful that you as a parent can do to help them reach that goal. I always felt bad when my Mom would say “Why did you get a B+? Why didn’t you get an A?” It seemed to be implied that it meant I wasn’t trying hard enough. I tend to be oversensitive, so not every kid is like I was. Some need that kick in the seat of the pants! But I tend to be hard on myself even now. My own worst critic. And I kind of think of that old Avis commercial where they say “We’re number 2, but we TRY harder!”

Coloma's avatar


Right, I agree.


Because yes, it takes a LOT to survive in this crazy world, BUT…the focus is on ‘doing’ more so than ‘being.’

The FACT is, we ALL deserve love, respect and cherishment based on our BEING over our DOING.

Remember the mantra that ’ we are human BEINGS, not human DOINGS.’

When we value another for their doing over their being, there is trouble in paradise.

wundayatta's avatar

@nebule I’m confused as to what you are trying to say. I am saying that if she took a little time away from Facebook, she could get straight As. Then you say she could be doing courses related to her career. Huh? Aside from the fact that she is years away from even thinking about a career, she is taking all the standard courses designed to give you a solid grounding to learn.

She’s the one who decided that she wanted to get into a very good college. So she’s the one who puts the pressure on herself.

There’s a difference between expectations and esteem. If my daughter doesn’t meet my expectations, I will still think she’s wonderful. I will still be proud of her for whatever it is she is excelling at. I have made many suggestions about things I think she would be good at, such as being a musician or acting in plays. She has turned it all down, and has decided to take on dance, at the moment. This is weird, since she was born dancing and then seemed to give it up as something her parents do, but now she’s interested in starting ballet, not because she wants to be a ballerina, but because she wants to learn some skills.

She puts an awful lot of pressure on herself. I don’t need to do anything. I just wanted her to know what I didn’t know—what was expected of me. I see expectation as setting a bar for reasonable attainment. It’s a height you know the person can achieve, or, if you don’t know them well, that you guess they can achieve. However if they don’t make it, they get to try again, or skip it. Because it isn’t a competition.

Another thing about expectations—I was thinking about the role of expectations in the work place. I used to be a field manager for a door to door canvassing organization. It was my job to train the new folks and retrain those who hadn’t been doing well. I always set high expectations for my crew. They always did well, compared to other crews.

I think that my expectations were an expression of confidence. It is like saying, “I know you can do this.” It should make the person who you are setting an expectation for feel like you believe they can do it. It’s like positive thinking. If you think you can do it, you do it. If you think you can’t, you don’t.

mattbrowne's avatar

Not forgetting about giving honest praise.

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