I helped boost my eight-year-old’s self esteem with a jar of nice notes

Guest post by Jenn
cerating..here i am
By: fairuz othmanCC BY 2.0

I did not grow up often hearing that I was smart (although I was) or that I was pretty (I had my good days). In fact, I did not know my worth at all until I thought I could find it in boys. BIG MISTAKE. Unfortunately, it’s an all too common one.

There was no way I wanted my daughter to follow that same path, so from a very early age I built her foundation of worth with a continuous flow of positive words — none of which focused solely on her obvious beauty:

You are so incredibly smart.
You are so incredibly kind.
You have such a great personality!
I am so proud of you and who you are.

It helps that they’re all true, but even if they weren’t, I’d say them anyway. I have always commended her strong spirit, her way with words, her compassion, and her generosity. If you ask her how she feels about herself she’d tell you that she’s awesome. The beauty in that is that she genuinely believes it. I’ve crammed it so far down her throat she has no other choice but to swallow it.

I believe that’s what good parents have to do.

Parents cannot wait until their children display qualities that they’re proud of before they start sharing praises. And I cannot tell you how damaging I think it is, to little girls especially, if all they hear are praises about their looks. I believe this teaches them to value outer beauty over inner beauty. It’s a recipe for self-esteem disaster. That’s not to say we shouldn’t tell them how cute or adorable they are, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus of parental praise.

I believe there is cause for celebration in every achievement no matter how small — not necessarily ticker-tape parade worthy, but worthy all the same. This is not to say to sugar coat things when they screw up or to over embellish mediocrity. I certainly haven’t. In fact, when they screw up, I’m the first to call them out on it in order to correct them. Cause for simple celebrations, to me, means giving them strength before they ask for it or need it. It means offering gratitude, respect, and pride merely at the fact that they exist in your world and not because they need to earn it.

It’s easy to forget how much they need that when our lives are careening every which way in order to keep up with the house, work, school, and all the other life activities that get in the way. I feel that parents have to make the time to remember the precious foundation and provide what is needed to make and keep it strong. In fact, it might be one of the most important responsibilities in parenthood.

I went so far as to create an esteem jar.

All photos by Jenn.

It’s a simple little jar I got on clearance years ago after Valentine’s Day. Inside it there are 50-60 sheets of paper with odes to my daughter — everything from a simple I love you, to how smart she is, to all the different reasons that she is wonderful. Not reasons that I think she’s wonderful, but all the reasons that she *IS* wonderful. There’s a difference there.

I sat down with her when she was eight and explained what the jar was for:

Any time you feel down or you’ve had a bad day or for whatever reason you’re simply not feeling good enough, I want you to open this jar and take out a piece of paper and read it. If it doesn’t remind you of how remarkable you are, how worthy you are, I want you to read another one. Then another. You keep doing that until you feel your soul start to smile again.

It has been four years since I gave her that jar and for three of those years it sat on her nightstand. She’s admitted to opening it often. One night she said she sat for an hour and read every piece of paper in there. She has suffered through bullying, mean friends, school changes, and various tribulations in her young life and, yet, she tries to hold her head high. She has visions of college and of giving back and of changing the world. She believes she’s destined for something fantastic. I know that a large part of her high self-esteem is because we’ve laid a solid foundation of worth. No matter what comes her way she knows that she’s not going to find it anywhere else but within herself.

Of course, as she hits those teenage years I know some things will change. I know her decisions may not always be smart ones, but I have no doubts that her path will not be anything like mine. She already displays more character than I ever had and continues to amaze me at how strong & determined she is to be her own person -someone that not only we are proud of, but that she is proud of, too.

Comments on I helped boost my eight-year-old’s self esteem with a jar of nice notes

  1. Blanket praise can be just as bad. It feels really cheesy on the recieving end, and it builds entitlement. Make it specific ” I like the way you did x”, ” I never thought of doing y like that, good job!”

    • Yes, sometimes it can backfire, giving the opposite desired effect. The child might stop believing anything the parent says or might believe that in fact there is something wrong with them because why else would someone be constantly praising them? It also tends to develop children who can’t deal with challenge very well. If they fail at something then obviously something is wrong with them personally and they give up instead of trying again. Or they don’t try anything for fear of failure. Praise needs to be attached to something done or not done, and is best when the child understands what exactly they did that brought the desired result.

  2. wow, this made me cry. I hope I will be just as awesome a parent as you. Learning self esteem is so important at a young age. Like many people i’m sure, I don’t feel I got enough praise growing up, especially from my mother, and I feel that may have impacted my own stupid decisions. I hope I’m able to help make the little guy growing in my tummy a wonderful man, teaching them self worth is an important step in my opinion.

  3. I love this so much!!! I want to do this so much especially as I am a custodial step mom with an AWOL biomom. This will be great to add to over the years and for her to go back over as she gets older and starts to cope with the inevitable emotions of having an AWOL biomom.

    And I agree so much with the perils of just praising looks. I always make a point to praise her for being kind & smart etc as well.

  4. I love this idea! I read a great article on Huffington Post about how we as adults should be concious of the way we talk to little girls so we don’t send the signal to them that their appearance is the mosting interesting and important part of them. The author noted that when we speak to little girls, often our first instinct is to compliment their looks (‘What a pretty girl!’). So she made concious choice not to do this and instead, upon meeting her friend’s daughter, asked her about her favorite subject in school and what the last book was she read.

  5. Great Job! Reminds me of a scene from The help. Since I watched that movie I have been wanting to institute this concept with my 2 year old daughter. I wonder what is the right age to start – right now everything I say is so generic – you’re mummy’s good girl etc.

    • I do that thing from Help to my daughter all the time! “You are special. You are smart. You are courageous. You are brave. You are crazy. You are mischievous. You are silly. You are are a reader!” She looks a me like I’m nuts sometimes. But that’s okay! She’s not yet two, btw, but all of those things are true!

  6. Great piece, thank you for sharing it with us! I do agree though that we should be careful to also praise effort, not just their current state. Like ‘wow you`ve worked really hard on this school project, you’re so awesome!’ instead of ‘wow your project is great, you’re so smart!’ because it sends the message that they can cruise on their smarts or looks without having to put much efforts. Studies have shown (sorry, don`t have the link here…) that praise based on effort has better, long term effects.

    And yes I think it`s sooo important to give young girls positive messages. I’m always really careful to encourage them and give praise based on other criteria than looks. The very fact that our first thought when seeing a young girl is always “wow you’re so cute!” proves just how ingrained this is.

    With all that said I definitely want a jar like that for my son – he`s only 2 but I can already see the different ways he seeks attention and praise, good and bad.

    • I think this is a nice way to show love for your daughter and while most of the compliments you listed are absolutely lovely I must second Rose when she mentioned praising efforts.
      As an educator, I find myself often addressing issues with my students who I believe to have a “fixed mindset” toward intelligence. They are either students who believe they aren’t smart enough so why bother trying? or the other extreme, students who don’t put in their best efforts because they know they are smart and they will do well no matter what. In the long run, a person with a growth mindset has a better shot at success when faced with life’s challenges.

      This is a good explanation of growth vs. fixed mindset:


      • I agree up to a point, but I think there is a place for more general praise too.

        As a child who was praised almost entirely for achievements (of which I had a fair few, I was a clever little thing!), I feel like that had a problematic effect in some ways too. I felt that people wouldn’t like/love me if I didn’t keep achieving, and that I was worthless unless I was working flat-out to be better and better all the time. Still a problem with me as an adult, in some ways.

        It’s a ridiculously fine line, definitely. But I definitely think there’s room for the affirmations the author wrote about; I definitely could have used it.

  7. this idea is fascinating to me. i am not a very touchy-feely sort of person. i’m good with the specific “hell, yeah, that was great” kind of praise, but not the mushy “you’re a really wonderful person” sort (even if it’s true).

    i like the idea of writing it down. as a soon-to-be foster parent, i feel like it’s something a kid will need from me, but which i’m not good at providing, and which they won’t be inclined to receive (typically) – and having it written provides us both with some privacy and safety around the emotional nature of it.

  8. I completely agree that it isn’t good for a girl to receive compliments only on her looks, but it is possible to take this to another extreme. Beauty that is obvious to the parent (and the rest of the world) might not be so obvious to the child. A girl can grow up believing she’s smart, strong, and capable, and not figure out she’s also beautiful until well into adulthood if her parents don’t affirm her beauty in addition to her other good qualities.

    • I was actually going to say that, but you beat me to it, Monk-Monk! *:)

      When my Boyfriend, myself, or bf’s mother have the Kidlet with us, we shower him with praise (mainly since he hears next to nothing from his Mom) that is legitimate to his accomplishments & what not. “Look how hard you tried to stay in the lines, buddy, that looks amazing! Let’s hang it on the fridge,” instead of “You’re such a good little artist!”

      That being said, we do also make an effort to compliment his appearance, as well. The thing is, our 3½ yr. old Kidlet has some self-esteem issues already. When he is with his mom, he has tattered hand-me-downs that don’t fit him properly, she doesn’t do anything with his hair (he’s half Burundian and has the thicker hair that requires maintenance and hydration), and he legitimately FEELS bad, when he goes to daycare. He’s told us as much, which is huge considering his young age. The teachers have noted that on the weeks he is with his mother, he has less energy, he’s a bit more morose & moody, and suddenly becomes more shy (which is weird like hell, because this boy is Casanova reincarnate when he is with us – you can’t stop him from flirting with everyone!) The sad part is that he LOVES clothes. We make sure to let him pick out his own clothes, when we go shopping, and he actually has amazing taste. He loves going shopping, loves doing things with his hair, and you should see how he lifts his head & feels pride when he KNOWS he looks like a million bucks. He looked at my Boyfriend, one morning while they were getting ready to leave for daycare, and said “Pappa…. I look really handsome today,” with a genuine smile on his face. My Boyfriend called me later, in tears, saying how happy he felt knowing his son felt GOOD about himself. Because when all is said and done, you can have all the confidence in the world, but if you feel in the back of your mind that you are ugly, that confidence will sink like a rock, over time. So, we make an effort to compliment his appearance, though we make sure that he’s aware his worth isn’t based on his clothes.

      So, I guess my point is, don’t cut out the looks completely, because that WILL make a kid feel good about themselves. Just don’t make it the first thing you zero in on.

  9. This made me want to cry. I feel like you were talking about me when i was a child. I don’t remember being praised and i too seeked attention from many boys as a teenager to boost my self esteem. Now here i am at 31 years old & still carry emotional scars from my promiscuous teen years. I am also now married & pregnant with my first baby & i am very concious of making sure they feel loved & that they get all the attention & praise they could ever need from my husband & i. I will be using many of your tips on my parenting journey. I love the idea of filling a little jar with positive notes. Thank you!

  10. This is something that reminded me of what a teacher I know did with a child in their class. The child had really low self esteem and had been taken out of their home by DOCs. To help with this little boy’s self esteem she had him keep a note book at school. Everyday he had to write one thing in there that he was happy with himself or proud of himself for and he had to show her at the end of the day. If he couldnt think of anything she would sit down and point out all the things she had noticed that day and then ask him “What are you proud of?”
    I really agree with everything you have said and giving children good self esteem is really important. I hope to do something like this when I have a child.

    PS Like other readers I also love that part of ‘The Help’ that shows that affirmation!

  11. What a special mom you are! I hope, if/when my husband and I get to be parents, we will be just a wonderful.
    Thanks for sharing. Love the esteem jar. I could have used something like that growing up!

  12. My kids thrive on specific praise. None of them will believe “you are the best!” but they will soak up “You worked so hard on that project, and it showed with all the detail you managed to put in clearly.”

    My only addition would be that sometimes looks should be praised, as some kids won’t be told that they are beautiful by anyone else. I make sure to tell my girls often that they are beautiful, but not just because of how they look. They are beautiful because of their welcoming smile, friendly nature, helpfulness, etc. All these things, along with how they look, makes them beautiful.

  13. I love this idea. My daughter is 8 now. I’m going to look for a jar and think of specific examples when she’s shown her praise-worthy stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  14. I actually made one of these for myself in college. I call it my “awesome box.” I decorated it with magazine cutouts that made me happy: cute characters, quotes, bicycles, graffiti, etc.
    It’s filled with notes and fortune cookie fortunes and love letters from myself and a bunch of my best friends, and I love to read them when I get depressed or feel conflicted.

  15. I SO agree with this and loved this post! Growing up (and to this day, actually, at 23 years old) she tells me she admires my compassion and creativity. She told me I was beautiful, too, but I’m glad that she didn’t focus on looks because I know that’s not what is truely important. And I tell my step-daughter all the time how incredibly smart she is. She’s going to be 5 years old soon and she is a gorgeous little girl but more importantly, she’s the smartest little girl that I have ever met!

  16. what a brilliant idea! I try to do the same especially bec. my girl who has a disability but never really feel im doing enough. I just may copy this. Thanks for sharing!

  17. Echoing what was said earlier: please be careful about telling kids that they’re smart vs praising effort. Kids that are told that they’re smart will often stop trying when they face a difficult task, but kids who have been praised for trying hard will work harder to solve the task. There are a lot of smart kids who hate learning out there because they’ve been praised for finding things easy. I don’t get the impression that that is what this mother is saying in that I don’t think she’s praising her daughter for, say, getting an A without studying; mine is a more general comment.

  18. Great idea, although I’d make the praises more specific. I’ve been reading a great book related to this subject, NurtureShock, and it’s really interesting how studies are finding that all the positive self-esteem stuff that has been so popular in the last few decades really hasn’t been beneficial. And oh was that a run-on sentence.

  19. This made me cry. I grew up only hearing that I was pretty. My parents never told me they were proud of my accomplishments, there are no pictures or home movies of the time I got a solo in the spring musical in 5th grade, and after high school my sister actually overheard them say they were disappointed in how we turned out. I grew up with compliments about my looks and then got to middle school where I wasn’t very popular and the kids informed me that I was ugly and fat, so I kind of felt like I was left with nothing. I’m a pretty big mess nowadays and to be honest, I felt incredibly relieved to have boys. I’m terrified of having a daughter, because I feel wholly under qualified.

  20. Well, I did cry over this article. Ever since her kindergarten, I have been stressing out on her responsibilities, home works, taking care of her belongings, being fair to others, and when se failed to do so, I have been right on her back pointing out her failures and intervening her thoughts, thinking it is the way for her to learn to stand up as a strong person in the future. No,,,, I was wrong all along,,,my precious eight year old has been suffering from insufficient self esteem. We had a long talk while she got tucked up in her bed, because it is our major catching up time with each other. My little one tends to speaks her mind right before I say good night to her or holds it somewhere in her heat for a month to three months. The biggest mistake, I give her praise only, only when she accomplishes something with my unrealistic expectation, made me cry.

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