Parenting with a PhD: You're (Not) So Special!

By Kristen Berthiaume:

All right. So the title is a little harsh – I admit it. Of course, your child is very special. To you. And your family and your close friends. You love your child and think that everything he does is wonderful (except when the things he does drive you insane but that’s another article). In the grand scheme of things, your child is a child like millions of others: amazing in his own ways but imperfect and in fairly regular need of guidance.

So, why the reality check? Maybe in an ideal world over which you had full control, your daughter would never meet anyone who didn’t believe in her 100%. She’d encounter no “mean girl,” no college rejection letter, no pink slip. But, the world is far from ideal and there will be disappointments and set-backs. We parents want to shield our sweet babies from as much heartbreak as possible, which sometimes leads us to pretend the world is always kind and fair. This is roughly equivalent to sticking our fingers in their ears and singing “LA-LA-LA-LA-LA!” to drown out the truth. When we tell our children that everything will work out as they hope, we’re missing a major opportunity to teach resilience, or the ability to persist in the face of obstacles. It is when they are knocked down that we have the best chance of showing our children how to come up swinging. You can’t teach her to recover from falling short if you’re always telling her that she’s THE BEST!!! at EVERYTHING!!!

You’ve probably heard a lot about the importance of self-esteem and how it needs to be bolstered. But, here’s the thing, high self-esteem based solely on trite praise like, “You’re so special!” and “You’re the best!” can actually be destructive to your child’s well-being. Children with inflated self-esteem are more likely to engage in risky behavior because they believe they’re immune from danger. They also tend to give up more easily, are less likely to try tasks they’re not already good at, and feel entitled to rather than grateful for things. When these kids grow up, they may have trouble maintaining relationships and be more prone to mental health issues like depression and anxiety. The problem is that self-esteem is a global, all-inclusive judgment and it’s not realistic that we find everything about ourselves to be wonderful. There is always room for change and growth – especially for kids who are, in fact, still growing! We want our children to generally like themselves – of course. BUT, your kid doesn’t need to believe that he’s perfect in order to feel happy with himself. What’s worse, when you praise everything your son does, he may start to wonder if your happiness depends on him being perfect.

By no means am I suggesting you criticize your child to “toughen” him up – he’ll get plenty of that in life. Instead, I’m advocating that you focus your encouragement on your child’s efforts rather than the simple fact of his existence. It’s important to separate love from pride. You love your child, which leads to all kinds of positive feelings. And that love will be there regardless of what grades he brings home or how many muddy footprints he tracks in. But, pride is a different feeling all together. Pride should come when you see your child making good choices like helping a neighbor or eating only one piece of candy. You can let your child know you’re proud by pointing out exactly what you liked about his behavior: “It was a great choice to take a break from that video game when you got frustrated with it.” It’s less helpful to make general statements about your child’s awesomeness like: “You’re great at everything!” or, even worse, “You’re smarter than all the kids in your class!” The first statement doesn’t specifically label the behavior you liked so it’s harder for your child to reproduce. The second sets your child up to feel superior and to say things to peers that will come across as bragging. Use your praise strategically to highlight the areas – be they social, academic, musical, sports-related, etc. – where your child is putting forth good effort and not to make him feel like he’s already fantastic across the board. If you praise your child for everything, you send the message that he doesn’t have to do anything to make you proud – just exist. You love him for who he is, you’re proud of him for what he does.

Praising effort is a great way to help your child develop something that will serve her much better than self-esteem: Self-Efficacy. Self-efficacy is a feeling of competency that’s specific to a particular task or situation. You can have self-efficacy for all kinds of things: math, baseball, getting along with others. Self-efficacy is based on a history of trying, failing, trying again, and, finally, improving. When the trying and improving are praised by an attentive, caring adult, this can increase the child’s drive to stick with it. Children with high self-efficacy in a given task are more likely to be interested, motivated, and successful in that area. Even better, when your child develops self-efficacy for a task, it increases his overall happiness and well-being. The difference between self-efficacy and self-esteem is that, in the former case, your child feels pride in herself but she also has the goods to back it up.

At times, you will have to let your child experience failures, hard as that will be. It may help to remember that through failing, we often learn. If your daughter doesn’t make the orchestra despite practicing (for five minutes) (the night before) (in between video games), a gentle conversation about why she thinks she wasn’t chosen may increase her motivation to put forth more before the next try-out. (Praise this!) If a playmate doesn’t want to come over because your son won’t share, he may be open to a problem-solving discussion with you about how to be a better friend. Talk about what he wants to do differently before the next playdate and then encourage the efforts he makes towards those goals. Avoid blaming the problem on the other child so that your son doesn’t have to feel bad – that bad feeling is an internal warning bell that his behavior needs to change!

No matter how much you love your child, you can’t possibly protect him from all that life will throw his way. Instead, prepare him to make the best choice possible and be a soft place to land when things don’t go well. Children with an understanding that they’ll have both successes and failures are much more likely to develop resiliency and resilient kids tend to be happier, healthier, more motivated, and better liked by others. By focusing encouragement on your child’s efforts and improvement, rather than praising everything he does, and by allowing your child to experience some negative consequences for himself and using them as learning opportunities, you can help him become more resilient. And, resilient trumps “perfect” any day of the week.

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way and I’ll tell you what I can: Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

About Kristen:

Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates ( She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her five-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.

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