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Achievement and Self Esteem: What Tiger, Elephant and Snowplow Parents Should Know

(3 minute read)

Ever since psychologists recognized that good self esteem was a necessary ingredient to a happy life, parents have been looking for ways to build their children’s self esteem. Most of us believe that when our children are good at things, they tend to feel good about themselves. So the question becomes, how do we make our kids believe they’re good at things?

If you’re a Tiger parent, the answer is clear: the child will believe they’re good when they are objectively among the best. They must be pushed to excel, to live up to their potential across a range of skills. An Elephant parent would suggest that their child needs to be nurtured, to be praised, to have their small triumphs celebrated. And a Snowplow parent would tend to push away their child’s obstacles in an effort to make their child’s successes more frequent.

Unfortunately, all three of these strategies can fall short. Tiger children often end up in an endless pursuit of parental approval that is always just out of reach, uncertain whether they’re loved for their achievements or themselves. Elephant children are not blind to their status among their peers, and quickly see through the praise of their parents to the reality of their average (or below average) performance. And Snowplow children are equally aware of the path that has been carved for them, and wonder if they could achieve anything significant on their own.

The assumption underlying these strategies — that a child who feels good about their achievements will end up feeling good about themselves — is, I believe, flawed. Many people are highly skilled or talented, yet fail to develop good self esteem. For one thing, there will always be other people who do what they do far better. Besides, liking ourselves isn’t just about being better than other people at something. I’ve known very successful people in business, medicine, art, law and other disciplines who never felt they quite belonged, never felt successful enough, and in their heart of hearts, didn’t like themselves very much either.

We can’t guarantee our children will be brilliant students, outstanding athletes or world famous musicians (although some Tiger parents might disagree). But we can instill in every child, regardless of their level of talent, a sense that they are decent human beings, honorable people who do their best for others and live their lives according to a moral code.

And how do we do that? First, we have to look at ourselves to ensure that we are modeling the kind of behavior we want our children to demonstrate. A message of “Be Honest” gets undercut when we cheat on our expense account, or ‘borrow’ supplies from the office, or tell fibs to our friends. (I told my own son many times to be honest, but the only incident he remembers is when a faulty ATM spat out a stack of money and I insisted we hand it over to the bank teller.) A message of “Treat Other People Respectfully” is equally undercut when you yell at your domestic helper. Your children are always watching what you do and comparing it to what you say.

And second, we can watch for behavior that demonstrates our children’s honor, decency and humanity, and reward that behavior every bit as much as their academic, sporting, artistic or musical achievements. When your child tells the truth in a situation where they could easily have lied; when they take responsibility for their mistakes; invest time in helping others; share; show empathy; show gratitude or demonstrate affection — let them know that you respect and admire them for it. And when your children grow up, they will sleep well at night knowing that they’re living a good life.

No matter how talented your child is in academics or other areas, sooner or later they will fail. They will find that they are not the brightest student at Oxford, not the most successful lawyer or not the top tennis player in the world. If the kudos they’ve received over the years only focus on their achievements, then their self image can be shaken when they’re no longer achieving. But if you’ve made it clear that you value them not only for their achievements, but also for the kind of human being they are, they will have the resilience to deal with such setbacks. And equally important, they will like themselves in the face of any failure.


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