We all want confident children, but research indicates that effusive parental praise can backfire. In one study, 80% of kids describe their parents' compliments as "not really true," "overblown" or "completely full of shit." Does this mean we're doomed to raise a generation of children who doubt themselves? Not if we stop praising them unnecessarily. Instead, parents should give their children truly daunting challenges that actually do warrant a flood of praise. For example:
1. Teach your child to do the Heimlich maneuver. Then, pretend that you're choking on a chicken bone. When your child "saves" you, thank him profusely, through tears. Be sure to tell everyone in the neighborhood about your little "hero."
2. Show your child how to use a fire extinguisher. Then, leave something flammable on the stove for too long. Your child will feel so proud when she successfully puts out the fire and "saves" everyone in the house! Don't forget to tell all of the firemen who arrive at the scene about your "brave little firefighter."
3. Teach your child where to find the number for the poison control center. Then take an overdose of medication, but don't tell your kid what you took. He'll have so much fun trying to "solve" the mystery of what's making you turn blue and foam at the mouth! Be sure to leave the empty bottle somewhere—kids just love looking for clues. Your little sleuth will feel so proud when he "saves" you from certain death!
4. Tell your child that you're dying of a mysterious degenerative disease and that she'll need to learn how to keep the household running as you slowly lose control of your body and mind. Kids derive so much joy from taking on "big boy" or "big girl" responsibilities! Once your child is scrubbing the toilets, making dinner, and filing as head of household on your yearly tax returns, her self-esteem is sure to skyrocket. Just don't start taking over "her" jobs or you'll see an immediate dip in her confidence.
5. Explain to your child that he is the only "real" human being alive, and the rest of us are actually just figments of his imagination, created by the gods to "test" whether or not he's fit to usher a new generation into the future. Tell him that when other kids or teachers challenge him, it's crucial to explain to such "heretics" (who aren't even real in the first place!) that Zambulon, the ancient god of fire, has decreed that thwarting his initiatives amounts to threatening the human race with certain extinction. Once your child sees that he's the only person on the entire planet who matters, he'll be so confident that you'll hardly even recognize him!
Now, be forewarned that any effort to substantially boost your child's confidence is going to come with some cost, whether it's a house burned to the ground, a pumped stomach, or a sudden expulsion from school. But once your child's self-esteem soars sky-high, she won't remotely mind being hated by all of the adults and children around her. And then you can finally rest easy, knowing that you did your part to ensure that the next generation of children might grow up to become some of the most tenacious, myopic, self-interested individuals ever to have lived. Why, just think of all of the amazing art and poetry and literature that will get incinerated when they start lobbing nuclear bombs at each other!
Heather Havrilesky is also The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Adorable child photographed by Lance Shields.