The pastor at church this week was talking about our value in God’s eyes, and said something about God’s regard for us telling is we’re awesome every day. Then he said something like “How long is it since someone told you you’re awesome?” (my paraphrase).

My response (to myself) was “Not that long, actually!” I couldn’t remember the precise instance, but I’m absolutely sure that in the past day or so Sue or one of the girls would have told me something very close to that.

That’s because it’s just the pattern in our family – we give one another affirmation, encouragement and praise constantly. We’re always telling one another that we’re smart, beautiful, talented and fun to be with. And if someone doesn’t come through with the praise when we feel we deserve it, we’re not shy about asking for it!

It seems to work for us. I don’t think we’re particularly arrogant, although we’re confident. I think people sometimes avoid praising their children because they worry that the kids will get a ‘swollen head’ and be impossible to be around. But my observations lead me to think that arrogance is much more often a result of insecurity than of security.

I think that particularly as young women, our daughters are better protected against jerks and manipulators. They’re not subject to flattery because they’ve heard about their good qualities before (and more sincerely), and they have a healthy concept of their own value, so they don’t put up with any crap.

How about it – how often do you praise the ones you love, and focus on their good qualities? It’s really not that hard… and it’s actually really nice to be able to say “Not that long” when someone wants to know how long it is since you’ve been affirmed.

4 replies on “Affirmation”

That was an interesting observation, Dave. I’d like to offer a counterweight to it. I do accept what you say, and I want to find the limits of its validity to ensure I don’t go the opposite way too much in my curmudgeonly way.

I recently read (iirc) The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman, because of trouble at home with high levels of negativity from one of my boys. His thesis is that the self-esteem movement tends to have the opposite effect from what it sets out to achieve, that people attain confidence by mastery of real-world problems, not by constantly being reminded how good they are.

In fact, among the people with the highest self-esteem are bullies. Such people have a sense of entitlement. This made me think of the British and western expats and how poorly they treated the natives a century ago.

I don’t think this is a fine-line type issue, but there clearly needs to be a way to instill a sense of worth and of the enormous human potential we all have while maintaining humility before the universe and an equivalent respect for others.

I partly agree, Mark.

Let me get the disagreement out of the way first: I don’t agree that bullies have high self-confidence. Someone who is confident does not need to abuse others to make himself feel better: he just feels better. Bullies, in one way or another, are insecure and taking that out on others. Colonialism is a separate issue, and relates to an entirely different world view on the value and abilities of different races, so might not be really relevant here, except in that it tells us to avoid affirming our children for their whiteness!

But I agree that self-esteem should be founded in real achievements and accomplishments – be based on something real – rather than simply on strokes for being a special flower. So I guess what I’m saying is not that we should manufacture affirmation and praise out of thin air, for nothing. Rather, it’s a matter of focus – every child will do good and bad things. It’s a matter of trying to focus on the good – to ‘catch them being good’ – and to affirm them when they are making good decisions. They also need to be corrected when they make bad decisions, and a lot of the problems with the ‘self-esteem movement’ come from avoiding doing that.

I think the other part of the picture that’s important is that what we affirm is part of how children learn values. If we affirm only good grades at school, they will see that as what is most important. We try also to affirm good moral bevahiour – being courteous, considerate, thoughtful, empathic.

I agree – children know when they deserve affirmation and when they don’t, and have very finely tuned detectors for nonsense. But there are enough authentic occassions on which we can encourage them that we needn’t invent inauthentic ones.

I should have posted a ref so as not to make everyone go round the mulberry bush each time they come to this, but here’s one:

“In contrast to old beliefs, recent research indicates that bullies act the way that they do because they suffer from unearned high self-esteem”

(I frequently turn to that peer-reviewed psychology journal wikipedia for help with these delicate matters)

That part does partly back-up the old idea of bullies being insecure: “Playground bullies regard themselves as superior to other children; low self-esteem is found among the victims of bullies, but not among bullies themselves.”

But it starts with a high self-estimation. It’s when their cosy world view is threatened that they react. Maybe you had a particular idea in mind with your choice of the word self-confidence, but I don’t seem much difference myself.

“The presence of superiority-complexes can be seen both in individual cases, such as the criminals Roy Baumeister studied, and in whole societies, such as Germany under the Nazi regime.”

But other than little say-what, I appreciate your home-spun advice, and it encourages me to pay more attention to the good decisions my kids make. I often notice when it’s too late that they have done something that required some forethought, and wish I’d affirmed them at the time.

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