When our boys were preschoolers, it was easy for me to discipline my kids by saying,”You’re a bad boy. Stop doing that.” It sounds kind of silly when I actually see it in writing now, but you know how parenting gets when the kids are running circles around you in the kitchen or slopping finger paint far beyond the paper it’s supposed to be on.

My wife, Toni (who is awesome) would inevitably pull me aside and say, “He’s not a bad boy. He’s a good kid who did a bad thing.” Small distinction. Big difference. Great advice.

One of the tensions of parenting is trying to figure out how to instill a healthy sense of self-worth in your kids while still correcting them.

I think most of us naturally gravitate toward extremes. We either affirm our children at every opportunity, afraid to say anything that might damage them. Or we say little in the way of affirmation–consistently pointing out what is wrong but afraid to affirm what we see as right.

All of this plays out in the stories we’re helping write in the lives of our kids. We’ve all marveled at the 12-year old girl on stage who has clearly been encouraged in the wrong direction by her parents. She can’t sing. She’ll likely never sing. But her parents will never tell her. But we’ve also all met the teenager who longs for any kind of affirmation from home. His self-confidence is shot, and to ever imagine his dad is proud of him is almost beyond hope.

So what do you do?

Here’s what I’ve tried to do as we’ve raised our boys:

I try to always affirm them, but selectively affirm their actions.

Think about it. Deep down, you want someone to believe in you no matter what. But you also realize you actually don’t want someone to affirm your every action. In fact, even as an adult, you want and need someone to challenge you.

I know it’s so easy, as a dad, to get that distinction messed up. But if you can keep it clear, it allows you to be a the constant encouragement and the regular correction your kids need.

How do you see this at work in the life of your family? In what ways do you affirm your kids while still correcting them?