Some say self-esteem is the best thing you can give to a kid; others, like "Tiger Mama" Amy Chua, say we take praise too far.
A new field of research, however, suggests the focus on self-esteem is distracting parents from imparting a far more important life skill: self-compassion.
Often misunderstood as self-indulgent, self-compassion, as defined by pioneering researcher Kristin Neff of the University of Texas at Austin, has three aspects: mindfulness of your own thoughts and feelings, a sense of a common humanity and treating your self kindly. Neff's book, Self-Compassion (William Morrow, 2011), was released in April.
While artificially building self-esteem has recently been linked to a number of mental health problems, including narcissism and emotional fragility, self-compassion is associated with resilience, enhanced energy levels, creativity and general life success. (Pictured: Neff consoling her autistic son, Rowan.)
Here are five ways you can help your child develop this critical life skill.
"I grew up thinking that the good life is more perfect than it is," said psychologist Mark Leary of Duke University, meaning that there is no state of fulfillment that, once achieved, will eradicate discomforts, hardships and disappointments.
We often interpret suffering — even at the hands of age or illness — as some sort of failure, Neff explains. As irrational as this is, labeling suffering as failure gives us the illusion it can be avoided entirely. It is uncomfortable to accept we can't control everything. But we can't.
Kids need to have an accurate understanding that life is, and always will be, made up of both highs and lows, he said. And as much as we may celebrate the good, part of growing up is learning how to accept the bad.
"Good parenting is about giving kids opportunities to learn how to deal with their emotions … [and] helping a child understand him or herself as a social being," said Paul Gilbert, a clinician and researcher at the University of Derby in the United Kingdom.
That is, to be successful adults, kids need to learn not only how to care for themselves and others, but also how to ask others for help, he said.
Researchers are finding the key to a happy and successful life is resilience, that is, being able to rebound in the face of difficulties. And the key to resilience is self-compassion.
Parents can walk children and adolescents through the steps of compassionate self-treatment by first helping them become mindful of their own emotions and reactions. This involves listening empathetically and helping kids find labels for what they are feeling. "It sounds like you are feeling aggravated." "Did that make you angry?" Expressions of sympathy are also helpful: "That sounds so hard!" "How awful!"
Parents can also point out these experiences are universal, saying such things as: "It is normal to feel frustrated and disappointed when you don't get what you want;" "It is human to feel jealous sometimes."
Finally, parents can discuss actions that may help a child feel better immediately (a hug, a walk, punching a pillow) and in the long run (planning ahead, learning patience, asking to share.)
The most important job of a parent is to make a child feel intrinsically worthy, Neff said, no matter their accomplishments or failures.
"As parents, you want to completely accept your child for who they are (rather than who you want them to be), but you don't want to sugarcoat things," she said. "You want to help them see themselves clearly."
To that end, she advises honestly critiquing a child's behavior, but not the child's character. This distinction makes it less likely that the child will confuse her actions or accomplishments with her self-worth. For example, saying "that was a hurtful thing you did" leaves the door open to improvement, and invites less of a defensive response, than would "you are disrespectful."
Similarly, saying "that was a clever idea" may be better than saying "you are brilliant," some experts suggest. That way, when a kid inevitably does something dumb, he doesn't feel he has ruined his parents' opinion of him.
How parents respond to a child's failures and successes influences the internal model the child develops for him or herself. "Kids start to play back that recording," Leary said.
"Extreme punishment, such as spanking or grounding for six months, teaches kids you should treat yourself harshly when you do something wrong," he said, and offers little instruction on what to do when similar difficulties again arise. Kids then grow up to be harshly self-critical, which saps energy and motivation levels, he said, and undermines their quality of life.
Alternatively, compassionate discipline starts by understanding the child's point of view and then helping the child change harmful behaviors.
The goal is to build habits and social skills that will serve the child well in the long run. For example, if a kid hurts his friend's feelings, he should feel bad about it, reflect upon the pain he has caused and think about ways to avoid such behavior in the future.
But then the focus should turn to what is best for everybody in the particular situation, Leary said. "It is not best for everybody if you beat yourself up for two weeks; it is best if you apologize and move on," he said.
Modeling self-compassion — and not modeling self-criticism — is of utmost importance, Neff said, because kids watch their parents for ways to deal with life. If they see their parents beating themselves up, that message is stronger than anything a parent preaches.
Don't worry; being compassionate with yourself will not, as most people erroneously think, turn you into a lazy, worthless slob. On the contrary, people who are self-compassionate often have more equanimity, are better liked, work harder and have higher standards than people who are critical of themselves, Leary said.
When kids learn to compassionately regulate and care for themselves, it can take them far.
"It keeps people motivated and in a positive state of mind that greases the wheels of social interaction," Leary said, which is the mortar to most happy, healthy and successful lives.