My husband and I have spent countless hours telling our daughter Bellamy how pretty she is, how smart she is, and -- whenever she shows off a dance move or plays a few notes on the piano -- how talented she is. It's our job to build up her confidence, right? But when she came home from kindergarten one day and announced, "Mommy, I'm the best singer in my whole class," I thought, "Uh-oh." Maybe our nonstop compliments had turned our little girl into a budding egomaniac.
As a parent, it's hard not to get caught in the raging tide of praise-mania. Check out a local bookstore and you'll find rows of titles telling you how to raise a self-assured child -- and barely any about making sure she's modest. What's wrong with making your kid feel good about himself? "The problem is that it's very easy to go overboard," says Diane Ehrensaft, PhD, author of Spoiling Childhood: How Well-Meaning Parents Are Giving Children Too Much -- But Not What They Need.
If you're constantly letting your child know how great he is, he'll develop an unrealistically high regard for his abilities -- and an ego that might make him insensitive to other people's feelings (not to mention unpopular).
But it's not too late to avoid the parent-praise trap. To control your child's swagger, teach him to appreciate the things other people can do -- and accept his own limitations. Instilling a sense of modesty from a young age will help your child make friends more easily and learn the value of teamwork. And by dialing down the praise, you'll be helping -- not hurting -- him over the long term. "Kids who are accurate judges of their talents are better at overcoming the obstacles they'll face in school and later on in life," says Robin Goodman, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York.
When your 2-year-old picks up a box of Legos and says, "Mommy, look how strong I am," or when your 3-year-old twirls around and sings, "I'm the prettiest princess," she's not really bragging. Toddlers are still developing a sense of who they are. And since they're working hard to master skills like talking in complete sentences and sharing, your praise and encouragement are crucial. "Kids this age need to feel secure, so that when they come across other people who are better at certain things, they'll still feel good about themselves," says Vicki Panaccione, PhD, a child psychologist and founder of the Better Parenting Institute, in Melbourne, Florida. In fact, boosting a toddler's self-esteem can make her less likely to be boastful later on.
But make sure you praise her actions the right way. Focus on her effort instead of the result, and avoid generalizations ("Good girl"). Instead, be specific in your comments, such as, "You didn't give up when the building blocks kept falling down," so that your child understands exactly what it is that she did well.
This is also the right time to teach your child that being nice to other people is as important as drawing beautiful pictures. "Don't just compliment his performance," says Ellen Frede, PhD, a child psychologist and codirector of the National Institute for Early Education Research at The College of New Jersey, in Ewing. "Encourage him when he puts his dishes in the sink or says thank you to Grandma. And explain why what he's done is commendable -- cleaning up the dishes helps you; it makes Grandma feel good when he says thank you."
When Lucas van Vliet, 4, and his brother, Carter, 2, share their toys or help out around the house, their mom, Elise, tells her husband, Rich, about it in front of them. "I'll say, 'The boys were so good about cleaning up their room. I don't know what I would have done without them," says the mom from New York City.
Humility hint: When people in your daily life do a good job, point it out to your child. If you're at the supermarket, thank the clerk for bagging your groceries and say, "He was really careful so that the eggs didn't break."
By age 4 or 5, children interact with their peers more regularly. They start noticing that some kids are athletic, some live in big houses, and some have lots of toys. "The other day my son Matthew bragged that his sneakers are cooler than his friend's because they light up," says Debbie Horwitz, a mother of two in Bethesda, Maryland. "I told him, 'It's not a competition,' and I pointed out that his friend's sneakers are special, too, because they have Spider-Man on them."
To counter this growing sense of materialism, teach your preschooler to count his blessings. One great way to do this: Make charity a regular part of your lives. Collect canned goods as a family for a food drive or spend an afternoon at a soup kitchen. You might visit a home for the elderly or write a get-well note to someone in your community who's ill. Giving thanks before a meal will also help take the emphasis away from possessions and get your kids to realize how lucky they are.
"Every few months I ask my 5-year-old daughter to fill up a box with clothes and toys for charity," says Heather Doyle, a Minneapolis mom. "I want her to know that there are lots of people who don't have as much as we do."
Humility hint: Watch how you talk about possessions in front of your child. If he hears you brag about the flat-screen TV you just bought, he'll learn that such behavior is acceptable -- and become more materialistic.
Once kids enter elementary school, they're increasingly likely to measure their accomplishments against those of their peers -- and to fall into the habit of bragging. Empathy is your best weapon to control this impulse, since children this age can -- and should -- think about other people's feelings before saying something boastful or insensitive. If your notice your child bragging, take her aside and say, "When you always talk about yourself, it gives your friends the idea that you think you're better than they are. They may not want to hang out with you anymore."
If you catch him saying, "Billy can only read beginner books; I can read level 3 ones," nip that attitude in the bud. Say, "Billy is still learning to read, but he's really good at math."
Try to balance your child's extracurricular activities so they aren't all about winning and losing. Yoga and tae kwon do emphasize skill-building, respect, and self-control, while the Cub Scouts and Brownie troops help teach teamwork. Many parents also find religion classes invaluable for instilling humility and kindness.
If your kids are constantly trying to outdo each other ("I can jump higher than you can" or "I have more Webkinz than you do"), don't sweat it: Competition is part of being a sibling. But you can do things to tone down the one-upmanship. Creating a family newsletter or building a fort in the backyard together will encourage your children to appreciate each other's contributions.
"We do a lot of cooking and art projects," says Mitzi Brettler, a mother of three school-age kids in Newton, New Jersey. "Everyone gets involved, and the kids usually wind up helping each other instead of competing."
Also keep in mind that a major part of being modest is learning to accept your limitations. "You shouldn't always feel you have to protect your child from failures and mistakes," says Dr. Goodman. So when your little ballerina doesn't get to perform a solo in the dance recital, don't make excuses ("The other girl's mom must be friends with the teacher"). Simply give her a hug and let her know you're proud that she did her best in the tryout.
Humility hint: Take your promising athlete to a high school game or your budding pianist to an older child's recital. This will help her realize that as good as she is now, there's plenty of room to work hard and get better.
When You Say: "You're the best gymnast in your class!"
It Means: The other kids are not as good as you.
Instead, Say: "I can tell you've been practicing really hard. Your cartwheels are so straight!"
When You Say: "Good girl!"
It Means: Nothing much.
Instead, Say: "I noticed that you said please and thank you at your friend's house. You've really been working on your manners."
When You Say: "You're a great soccer player no matter what happened on the field today."
It Means: Mommy is not being honest with you.
Instead, Say: "I like that you kept trying even though your team had a rough day."
When You Say: "Wow, that's the best drawing I've ever seen!"
It Means: Mom thinks every little thing you do is great.
Instead, Say: "Those flowers are very colorful, and I like how your picture tells a story."
Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the November 2007 issue of Parents magazine.