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September 04th, 2017

Confidence vs Ego

Some schools will be starting up this week and as kids begin the new school year of course parents will be thinking about how to motivate and encourage their offspring. We want our children to develop confidence so that they will be willing to give things a go, to try hard and to persevere if when things get tough. We want them to put themselves forward for things where they may discover new talents and enthusiasms. We want them to have courage and drive and self-control and be willing to follow their own dreams and maybe try a different path than that taken by the majority.

And whenever we mention using praise to build confidence someone will say “but I don’t want my child to become conceited or too self-focused”.  And quite rightly.

Our instincts in this direction are backed up by research that shows that children who are ‘other-focused’, that is empathetic, are happier, bounce back from adversity faster and have better academic outcomes, apart from just being kinder and nicer to be around. Study after study has found that kids with good emotional intelligence (which includes empathy)  are not just better adjusted emotionally, more popular and more sensitive but they are also physically healthier and perform better academically than less empathetic children.[1] 

In 2012, researchers at McGill University in Montreal found a direct connection between empathy and learning capacity.[2]  Children who receive empathy and are taught to empathise, especially from an early age, develop a higher capacity to learn. Part of the reason for this is that empathy is an especially effective antidote to stress which negatively affects learning and brain development in children. It affects the prefrontal cortex which manages non-cognitive skills like self-control as well as memory and reasoning. Children who are coached in emotional intelligence techniques are also more resilient which allows them to quickly refocus on learning.

Michelle Borba, in her book, Unselfie, talks about a generation of kids who are all about self-promotion, personal branding and self-interest to the exclusion of others’ feelings needs and concerns. She calls it the ‘selfie syndrome’ and claims that there is a rise in narcissism and a drop in empathy in today’s young. There is an observable increase in bullying and some evidence of greater cheating as they focus on winning at all costs. We also know that there is an increase in mental health problems, especially anxiety, and with that empathy wanes.

In the last few days I’ve had several conversations with family and friends who all work in very disparate fields about difficulties working with colleagues. At the root of each situation the problem appeared to be ego – the colleague in the different situations was non-collaborative, self-promoting, obstructive, undermining others or unwilling to accept feedback as they focused on themselves.

It is clearly better for society at large and indeed for our individual children too if we can develop healthy self-esteem without risk of producing kids with inflated egos. We want our children to promote themselves (particularly girls who haven’t always done so in the past) but still want them to be collaborative. We want them to pursue their goals and interests but not at the expense of others’. I think we want all our children to believe in themselves but not necessarily to think they are better than others.

How do we get that balance right?

  1. Well we need to make sure we are using realistic praise based on facts. That means descriptive, not evaluative, praise. So avoid “Brilliant darling, you’re amazing” ,  and go for noticing and commenting on what they get right, including the attitude they show, improvements they make and strategies they employ. It is not about results as much as focusing on efforts. Instead of saying “you’re so clever” try “I’m so pleased to see you’re not giving up with that sum. Fractions can be tricky, but you’re persevering.”  “Because you’ve been practising your guitar chord changes you’re able to make them much more fluid now, don’t you think? I’ll bet you’re pleased with yourself.” “When you stood up for Kim when those girls were teasing her, that took courage. You weren’t prepared to stand by and allow it to happen. That was real friendship.”
  2. And what are we praising them for? We get more of what we pay attention to so maybe we can think about what qualities we want to encourage in our children. For some it will include humility, for acknowledging others’ efforts and contributions, for kindness and generosity and treating others fairly and with respect. And of course we need to be modelling these qualities ourselves if we expect to see them in our children. No pressure!
  3. When we are descriptively praising we need to avoid comparisons. Let your child know what you appreciate about him as a unique individual, not in comparison with someone else. Tell him this is his best effort –not that he is the best. “Your good result in your spelling test reflects the hard work that you put into it. This is the best you’ve done so far” not “You got a better score than Luke.”
  4. Build empathy in children by showing it to them. Let them know you understand and care about their feelings by describing them. “You seem really stuck on this problem. It can be hard to think of solutions when you feel like that. Last week when you had those spellings to learn you really persevered and had some creative ideas for remembering them. As I recall you found it helped you to move around while you were memorising. You got them in the end”.   “I know sometimes it’s hard to get started on your homework/music practice when you’d rather play your new game. Those computer games are designed to be really appealing and when something’s new it’s even more tempting”.   This builds self-awareness, the first step toward perspective taking and empathy.

In a seminar to the leaders of a global manufacturing company with a strong engineering base Daniel Goleman put forward a strong business and scientific case for emotional intelligence as the active ingredient in strong leadership which he then wrote about in the Harvard Business Review. His research showed that when it comes to the top echelon leaders, companies find that 80-90% of the competencies that distinguish star leaders are built on emotional intelligence.  Being able to understand someone else’s perspective is vital for negotiating with and managing others. In a nutshell if your child develops emotional intelligence skills he will have a competitive edge for the future.

Hope this year is a great one for you and your children. 

Melissa and Elaine

[1] John Gottman: The heart of parenting: How to raise an emotionally intelligent child 1997

[2] http://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/empathy-and-learning/

Posted in: Confidence , Descriptive Praise , Emotion Coaching

 

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