Recently I came across an article in a prominent medical journal about “unconditional regard”. First I needed to know what this term referred to. The author kindly defined unconditional regard in the abstract; it refers to the feeling that one is accepted and valued by others without conditions. This is obviously a good concept if it is not taken too far.
It does reduce some negative self-feelings. But, if carried to the extreme, it does not prepare the child for the real world. It becomes an extension of the overused and outdated concept that everything the child does is to be praised. Or at least he should never receive negative sanctions.
Self-esteem is not a gift; it is self-generated. False praise can lower self-esteem, for the child sees him or her as receiving kudos for something that is mediocre.
The perfect example of this is the practice of giving all participants of child athletics an MVP award at the end of the season. The ones who have contributed very little to the team know they are not the most valuable player and it can do nothing positive for their self-esteem.
On the other hand, true awards can be an incentive for a child to try harder and thus earn self-esteem.
We must be sure praise is honest. Just as important, constant harping by a parent for the child to be the best when it is not possible is equally destructive. If your child is trying his utmost in an academic or athletic endeavor, praise him for his effort expended, but do not acclaim greatness if it is not there. Self-esteem is equally self-generated if effort and dedication is approved. Realize your child’s potential and do not expect more. The old adage “Say something good or say nothing” is correct. But do not inflate the praise beyond realistic expectation. The child perceives this as insincere and frequently reacts negatively to it.
Let praise not only be a reward but also an incentive to try harder and work to his potential. We should not be a culture of “everyone gets a trophy”. For then the award means nothing in the child’s eyes and makes striving for it unnecessary.
Certainly the author did not intend for us to lavish false praise on our children. Rather the idea was not to burden them with constant negative results for their actions, and thus destroy their desire to succeed. The line between false accolades and honest rewards is a fine one. As parents we must guard against trying to infuse self-esteem into our children. It must be self-generated; it must be earned.