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Imbuing Real Self-Esteem

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

Our kids are too smart to fall for counterfeit praise.

In an age where the self-esteem movement rewards "just showing up," teaching our children that self-respect comes through action and that everything we have is a gift from the Almighty is no easy task.

Don't we need to build our children up? Of course we do. But not falsely, not meaninglessly, not in a way that is unconnected to who they are and what they did. Our children are too smart to fall for that. In fact studies show it is more damaging to their ultimate success as adults to receive empty praise than it is to experience constant criticism. I am certainly not advocating the latter path. I'm just suggesting a little perspective.

Children know when they have worked hard. They know when they are working at or close to their potential. And they deserve recognition accordingly (even if it leads to a "C"). They are only confused and later learn a sense of entitlement when they are rewarded for doing nothing.

These young men and women initially experience entitlement, later cynicism and ultimately despair.

In an extreme example of this, the documentary "Born Rich" interviews some college students who are children of the extremely wealthy. They know that because their parents have given a large donation to the school, they need only attend one college event (not necessarily a class!) and they will be promoted to the next year. These young men and women initially experience entitlement, later cynicism and ultimately despair.

So the praise needs to be connected to real action, to significant effort on the part of the doer.

The other crucial element in raising children who have healthy egos but lack arrogance is to constantly remind them that everything comes from the Almighty. The Talmud suggests that doctors are particularly prone to receiving a hellish afterlife. That seems surprising. Aren't they engaged in humanitarian acts? The challenge for doctors is to remember that they are only the Almighty's messengers, that He has endowed them with their particular wisdom and skill and that He is the ultimate arbiter of life and death. The doctor's challenge is to see his work as a privilege and constantly ask the Almighty for His assistance.

This is obviously not a struggle solely for medical practitioners. While dealing with life and death issues may make us feel God-like, any time we accomplish and don't credit the Source we face the same danger. If we succeed in business, thank God. If dinner is delicious, thank God. If a child does well on an exam, thank God. While some balk at this robotic response, it is the most effective tool for taking everything back to the Almighty.

So how do we imbue this in our children? If our son comes home excited that he did well on a test, what could we say? "I'm so proud of you; you used that head the Almighty gave you exactly as He intended." If your daughter doesn't study, and her grades reflect that fact: "What a shame. The Almighty gave you the gift of a good mind and you're wasting it." Your child doesn't study and does well anyway: "How lucky you are that the Almighty made school work come so easily to you."

None of this will work, however, if we ourselves are modeling a completely different perspective. If our husbands brag about their deals, their stock tips and their business acumen. If we boast of our organizational skills and culinary abilities. We need to constantly reflect everything back to the Creator.

In teaching our children, we will be teaching ourselves as well. And in our recognition of the true Source of our good and in the thoughtful use of the gifts He has bestowed upon us, will real self-esteem take root.

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