Developing a child’s self esteem

Taylor Boothby and Angela Wang

Developing the self-esteem of children is a topic that generates a great deal of discussion, but one often overlooked aspect of this is the way in which praise influences the belief systems that children adopt.  Though it may seem that praise can only be a good thing, the way in which it is delivered can make a huge difference.  Whether children are praised for their enduring characteristics or their effort expended on a particular task can help to determine their beliefs about their ability to be successful, especially in school, as well as the main source of their self-esteem, both of which may influence children’s futures in a variety of ways.

The self-esteem of an individual who has an incremental/mastery orientation tends to be based on the effort they have expended and the learning that results, rather than the subjective evaluations of other people (Siegler et al 360).  Because these people are not only concerned with their success or failure on a task, but also with improving themselves through learning, they tend to enjoy challenges, persist when tasks are difficult, and focus on the process of learning over the end result.  They also view intelligence as something malleable, something that can be expanded and developed with effort over time.

In contrast, people who have an entity/helpless orientation generally base their self-worth on the approval of others.  To receive the praise they crave, they tend to intentionally place themselves in situations in which they know they can be successful, and avoid situations that may prove challenging (Siegler et al).  They generally view intellectual ability as something people are born with, something that cannot be improved regardless of effort.  Consequently, they believe that their success or failure in academic situations is directly dependent on their set intelligence level, and when they fail, they tend to quickly give up.

By the preschool years, children have already begun to behave in accordance with one of these motivational patterns, either engaging in play tasks that are challenging, or in activities they have already mastered (Smiley & Dweck, 1994).  Though there are many factors which may influence a child’s motivational pattern, an important aspect over which parents and teachers have considerable control is their praise and criticism of children.  Praising children for their effort, rather than for success, by saying something like “Good job for working so hard on your spelling test,” reinforces the development of an incremental/mastery motivational pattern (Siegler et al).  Such commentary drives home the concept that effort is more important than the end result, and will increase the likelihood that children will work hard in the future when faced with challenges.  However, praising children in ways that emphasize their enduring characteristics, as in “You’re such a great speller,” reinforces an entity/helpless orientation by sending children the message that their ultimate success is determined by unchanging traits.  Criticism works the same way, with incremental views being supported by statements such as “I know you’ll do better if you try harder next time,” and entity views being reinforced by criticisms along the lines of “You’re bad at spelling.”  Importantly, parents and teachers alike are more likely to praise girls for enduring traits, boys for their effort.

Motivational patterns and their related belief systems often shape the kinds of goals that students will strive towards for their future – students with an incremental conception of intelligence tend to have progressive learning goals while those with an entity view, commonly girls, prefer to demonstrate current capabilities (Simons 3784).  While boys generally strive to continually grow in their knowledge by challenging themselves, girls tend to fear these challenges and the possibility of failure that accompanies them.  With this evidence, it is no wonder why there is an 8:1 ratio of men to women in the engineering field.  Beyond basic sciences and mathematics, very little about this specialized field is introduced in high school curriculum.  Entering any engineering field is a huge commitment at the university level because the majority of the material is entirely new.  Boys may see this as a challenge to their intelligence and embrace the chance to learn something new.  Meanwhile, girls may be frightened by the prospect of having to learn the completely new language of computers and waver at the idea of failure.  Accordingly, only a few very ambitious women ever attempt to enter the fields of computer science and engineering.  Most of the women who do study engineering as a major believe their aptitude as engineers is a fixed ability, which causes them to drop classes or change majors when faced with difficulties (Heyman).

Even in today’s progressive society, women are too often overlooked and their intelligence undermined, especially in these male-dominated fields.  Many are accepting of the status quo; they don’t think anything of it because they have grown up being praised for permanent characteristics at a much higher rate than their male peers.  To make matters worse, the public school system tends to reinforce the idea that girls can’t do math and science as well as boys in a variety of ways, the most obvious being the fact that it is much more rare to find a female teaching math or science than any other subject.  As a result, many girls graduate believing that they are unable to brave such daunting fields, and never give themselves the opportunity to try.

What society must do to correct this is empower girls by encouraging their continued effort in all subjects.  If they are supported in the right way and develop more adaptive belief systems, they can become as competent as men in math, science and engineering.  Women like Debbie Sterling, creator of Goldiblox (an engineering toy for girls) are living proof that girls can do anything they set their minds to.  They lead by example, calling out to girls of all ages to pursue their passions, strive for excellence, and love learning for its own sake, even when others doubt their ability to achieve.  In order to help girls reach their full potential, parents, teachers, and peers must begin to encourage the females in their lives by praising their hard work, and refusing to let them continue to fall short of their true potential.




Boggiano, A. and Barrett, M.  Strategies to Motivate Helpless and Mastery-Oriented Children: The Effect of Gender-Based Expectancies.  Sex Roles, Volume 25: 1991.  Web.  16 Apr. 2014.

Gail D., Bryn Martyna, & Sangeeta Bhatia.  Gender and Achievement-Related Beliefs Among Engineering Students.  Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, Volume 8:  2002.  Web. 17 Apr 2014.

Siegler, Deloache, J., & Eisenberg N.  How Children Develop. Worth Publishers.  3rd Edition (2011).  Print.

Simons, P. R. “Metacognition.”  International Encyclopedia of Education, 1994.  3784-3788.  Web.  17 Apr. 2014.

Valian, Virginia.  “Why Aren’t More Women in Science?”  Women at the Top in Science–And Elsewhere.  27-37.  Web.  17 Apr. 2014.

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