Understand the difference between praise and encouragement
Phrases like “Good job!”, “That’s pretty!”, or “Nice work!” common phrases parents use with kids. Those phrases are all phrases that offer praise, but praise is frequently confused with encouragement. To put it simply, praise focuses on the product while encouragement focuses on the effort. To use the example of a child painting a picture and then showing it to his parent, when the parents responds with “Oh! That’s so pretty!” the focus is placed on the product (the picture). If the parent wants to provide encouragement here, the response would be more like “Wow! Look how many colors you used for this!” Another encouraging statement would be “I can tell you worked really hard on this” or “You must feel very proud of your work!” Both praise and encouragement are valuable, and kids will work for both. But, when the focus is on the product the child may feel pressured to replicate the product for more praise next time. When the focus is on the effort put forth or the process the child used, the child walks away with a chance to feel proud of something he or she has the power to continue.
Teach kids to receive feedback
Kids with low self-esteem have a hard time receiving even the most constructive criticism without becoming defensive. Talk to kids about why feedback is important, emphasizing that feedback can be about “strengths” or about “things to work on”, and it’s important to know about the things we can learn to do better because that’s how we grow. Share with the child times an adult they love has used feedback to improve. Ask the child to share her ideas about how she can improve when the feedback suggests there’s an area to work on. A great book to teach kids about feedback is Julia Cook’s book “Thanks for the Feedback...(I think)”.
Set up opportunities for your child to learn new things
Learning new things gives an opportunity for the child to receive encouragement and also practice learning from feedback. Give plenty of opportunities for kids to learn to do new things. Start by letting kids do some of the things around the house that are usually done for them (making the bed, sorting laundry, making their own lunches, pouring their own cereal, picking out their own clothes, etc.). Rewards are great to use as kids learn new skills. Put up star charts and allow kids to place their own stickers or starts on the chart as they learn to be successful at their new skill.
Set up playdates with friends who bring out the best in your child
While you still have control over how your child’s time is spent, take advantage by organizing and facilitating playdates with the child or group of children your child is his “best self” around. Social successes do so much for children’s self-esteem. After the playdates, offer words of encouragement for your child. You might say something like “You played so well with Charlie. I really appreciate how well you shared your toys and how helpful you were when Charlie was learning to draw a dinosaur.”
Talk to your children about their strengths
Starting at an early age, “notice out loud” the things your child is good at. Does she love to dance? Does he have naturally good form when throwing a ball? Is he especially kind to others? Does she have a great memory? When you notice things that come naturally to your child, talk to them about it. Let your child list things he feels proud of or things she thinks she’s really good at. Children who understand that every child is unique and that everyone has different talents and gifts generally have higher self-esteem and are more encouraging to others. Some good books about unique talents are “Spoon” by Amy Rosenthal and “The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt.