In her book America by Heart, Sarah Palin writes about the dangers of empty praise and the “self esteem” movement that has swept the nation by storm. Specifically, she points out how dangerous this is for children:
Sometimes I think we try too hard with kids these days to substitute this inner strength with empty praise. Everyone’s into building their kids’ self-esteem by telling them they’re all “winners,” assuring them that every scribbled picture is a work of art and every chaotic soccer game is a triumph. I understand the good intentions behind this, but I also worry that we’re not giving our kids a chance to discover what they’re made of. Kids know the difference between real praise and empty praise. When we don’t let them fail, when we tell them every average effort is superlative, we’re keeping them from discovering that hidden strength. We may think we’re helping them, but really we’re holding them back.
In fact, we may be creating a generation of entitled little whiners.
Palin goes on to discuss the effect that this kind of upbringing has on young people as they enter the work force (hint: it’s not good) and the dangers that result from parents protecting the egos of their children while denying them the opportunity to experience, and the understanding of the importance of, hard work.
As parents, it’s natural for us to want to protect our kids from the dog-eat-dog competition of life. But do we really have their best interests at heart when we shield their little egos, finish their science projects, and sell all their Girl Scout cookies for them?
I would argue, as Palin does, that we do not have their best interests at heart and that we are, in fact, damaging our children when we fail to be realistic with them. There are many important lessons to be learned from assuming responsibility and working hard…and accepting the consequences for mistakes or failure to follow through on something that we were responsible to do.
The ultimate example of a parent, of course, is our Heavenly Father, and it does not take a scholarly grasp of the Scriptures to understand that God does not promise smooth sailing and a life free of disappointments to His children. On the contrary, He promises that life will have its share of challenges, trials, difficulties and even persecution. God uses these things to work His will in our lives, to shape us into the people that He wants us to be and to equip us for the future He has for us.
If the God of the universe, who could literally eliminate all obstacles in our lives and shield us from any heartache or disappointment has not only declined to do so but in fact promised just the opposite, can we really think we are being effective, God-honoring parents if we attempt to do so for our children?
Of course parents need to protect their children from unnecessary hardship and unfair treatment, but parents also need to let their children accept responsibility for their own actions and even, on occasion, go through the effort involved in working through their own problems. Parents should not do homework for their children, but they should be available to help their children if necessary. And if the homework does not get turned in, parents should support whatever consequences occur as a result, not try to excuse away the problem and facilitate the avoidance of consequences. If a child violates a school rule–from chewing gum to cheating on a test–the parents should support the consequences that result, whether a verbal reprimand, an after-school detention, or a zero on the test. The worst thing a parent could do is attack the school, verbally undermine the teacher or the school leadership, and be heard by their children making excuses for why their child wasn’t really cheating, or didn’t really mean it or know what he was doing if he did. Parents should defend their children to the nth degree, should support them to the utmost, encourage them early and often, and should be there for them regardless of what happens…but they should not, ever, under any circumstances, be the instrument of empty praise or the agent of avoidance for the justifiable and deserved consequences of actions (or inactions) of their children.