It’s important to help kids develop good self-esteem. But the question is how do you reach that holy grail? Praise and positive affirmations are a common approach starting at Day 1, and it takes various forms. But you should be mindful of tossing off the standard “You’re great” and “Good job,” and aspire to do better. Why? Such common affirmations for kids are reductive, imprecise, and don’t take into account how a child may actually be feeling. Often, the words end up sounding hollow.
“Who among us stands in front of a mirror and says, ‘Gosh, I love myself?,’” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, psychologist and author of Kid Confidence. Of course children should feel confident, she notes. But the goal is a “quiet ego,” where there’s less self-focus. Thus, the baseline question becomes, “What gets them there?” Well, that would be building skills, gaining competence, and feeling connected to you.
There are two things that help with this pursuit. You need to present, and you need to be please-able. You can’t keep upping the expectations, Kennedy-Moore says. Praise is a component. Parents need to give it with their actions and their words. But the problem is parents often dole out positive affirmations for kids for every simple act of being. It ends up being “blather,” says Laura Kastner, family and child psychologist and author of Getting to Calm, The Early Years.
The simple solution is to talk less. When your words are well-placed and specific, they resonate, and then the cascade starts in your child’s head. They develop an internal dialogue that says, My parents see and appreciate me. I’m good as I am. I feel secure. “It’s the confidence to try and fail so they can stretch and master,” Kastner says.
Praise still matters. But what affirmations for kids should parents say more often? Well, there’s no one phrase that works. Every kid responds differently in general, and also in any given moment. You’re the expert so you can tell what’s needed, but the following options can help lay the groundwork.
1. “You did a good job.”
Simple right? But the three extra words “You did a” make the traditional “good job” feel less tossed-off and more intentional. The key when saying it is to wait until your child overcomes a struggle – the zipper, seatbelt, or spelling the word “finally”. When they do, look them in the eyes and slowly say it. And then don’t keep saying it once the skill is part of their everyday repertoire. You start looking for the next challenge, Kastner says.
2. “You are becoming …”
With this one, you’re pairing an observation of success with future progress. It says to them, “You stuck with that project even though it was frustrating. You are becoming good at being persistent.” The “becoming” part touches on the process of learning and the need to struggle. “It says, ‘Never mind if you’ve messed up in the past or you’ll mess up tomorrow,”” says Kennedy-Moore. “‘Right here, right now, I see evidence of hope.'”
3. “You’re feeling really frustrated right now.”
Phrases that affirm feelings are important for developing an emotional language. Say your kid is feeling down about something. If you start with the “You can do it. You’ve done it before” pep talk, that tactic is probably going to fail because you’re invalidating what your kid is dealing with. Instead, you need to lead with empathy, and you need to say “right now,” which can also be, “You’re trying to learn this new thing.” The idea is you want to tie the struggle to the moment or situation. “It doesn’t feel like always and everywhere,” Kennedy-Moore says.
You can also go further and fill in the details. “You were angry because your brother took your truck.” Don’t worry about being wrong; your child will correct you. The bigger thing is that you’re giving him or her the eventual words, and, you’re in it with them. “You’re holding half the weight of those feelings,” she says. “It feels good to be understood.”
4. “Maybe we should take a break.”
You don’t want to always swoop in. It’s okay for kids to struggle and fail, because that’s how they take risks, says Grace Cho, associate professor of psychology at St. Olaf College and co-author of Self-Esteem in Time and Place. Ultimately, you want them to go back to a problem, but you know what frustration will do, and when you see that they’re moving into the yellows and reds, “You want to try to reboot,” advises Kastner. When they get back to calm, you can say, “Well that didn’t go as planned but that happens. Is there another way to try?” You’re acknowledging the mistake but shifting to strategizing and getting them to use their creativity, Cho says.
5. “How about you try the next one on your own?”
Competence doesn’t just come from taking on new challenges. Kids also get it from improving in steps and pieces at what they’ve already been doing. It’s called building scaffolding, Cho says. And while they don’t know it’s happening, you do, so while you might have helped them before with the entire puzzle, you can slowly step back and suggest that they go solo for a bit. They might resist and request help, but you resist, let them struggle, and then they can realize what more they’re capable of.
6. “I loved that you …”
You could fill it in ellipsis here with: “made that great pass”; “drew snow on the mountains”; or even “didn’t hit your brother”. Praise is all about the specifics. This lets your child know that you really were paying attention and it sends them a clear signal: Oh, do that again. A close cousin of not hitting might be, “I appreciate that you set the table when you were upset.” The translation is, “I know you were hating our guts, but you still did your chore and did it well.” It’s not always the pretty stuff that should get attention. “We should reinforce what doesn’t happen when it takes a lot of effort,” Kastner says.
7. “I love hanging out with you.”
It’s understandable to get caught up in tasks and forget about enjoying your kids. This is said as purely as it sounds when you take a walk or play a game. It’s also a reminder that you don’t have to parent every moment. You two can just be, and when you express that you enjoy being with him or her, the confidence shoots up. “It gives kids a warm glow,” Kennedy-Moore says.
8. “This is new for me. I’m learning as I go.”
You say this and say it out loud. It’s self-talk, another good skill to pass on, when you’re taking on any new challenge. You also want to be public with two more things: accepting a compliment with a “Thank you” and not putting yourself down. Your advice is fine, but if you want them to be kind to themselves, take risks, and make mistakes, guess what? “They should see things so they can learn to do it themselves,” Kennedy-Moore says. “They pick up on your actions more than your words.”