We’ve started doing affirmation cards with our kids. These are a deck of cards with positive messages on them, e.g. I love animals. I am kind. I am loved. We did it to make them feel good and build their self-esteem.
One night, before going to bed, our youngest pulled out a card that said ‘I am loved’. He burst into tears. After calming down he said he didn’t feel he deserved to be loved because he’s sometimes naughty, sometimes losses control and lashes out or says things he doesn’t really mean.
I did a bit of research into affirmation cards and found out how they are supposed to work. According to David K. Sherman of the University of California and Geoffrey L. Cohen at Yale University argue self-affirmation theory goes like this:
· People are motivated to protect the perceived integrity and worth of self.
· Motivations to protect self-integrity can result in defensive responses.
· The self-system is flexible.
· People can be affirmed by engaging in activities that remind them of “who they are”. And so reducing stress when they are faced with contradictions, or challenging situations.
But research shows that they only produce positive effects in people with high self-esteem. For people with low self-esteem, they can feel worse. The researchers say that, like overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements, like “I accept myself completely” can create provoke contradictory thoughts for people with low self-esteem. When positive self-statements strongly conflict with self-perception, researchers argue, there isn’t just resistance but a reinforcing of the self-perception. Saying something that contradicts what you believe only makes you believe it more.
This explains our son’s reaction, because, at the time, he was knackered and had had a tough day.
We’re still using the cards, and will continue to, because we believe it’s important to step back and see the ‘wood for the trees’. But we’re now using them in the morning, seeing them more as a conversation starter over breakfast than an absolute truth.