Self-esteem is one topic sure to set people off. In one camp are those who think we should praise people so as not to damage their fragile self-esteem. In the other are those who think self-esteem is some kind of psychobabble for people who are simply full of themselves. Both camps are wrong.
The word, itself, gives one a clue as to what it really is. Self-esteem, by definition, cannot be bestowed upon another. It is, in fact, how we regard ourselves. And if that is true, we cannot bolster our children's self-esteem with praise. However, what we can do is see to it that they become competent human beings and are able to self-assess.
How does one raise a competent human being? Praise has little to do with it and put-downs nothing at all. Parents who want to raise competent people need to make sure their little ones know stuff. They start small, so their competencies should start small. Let your toddler dress him or herself. Let them drag a stool to the sink to brush their own teeth. When they master the zipper or buttons, let them show you how competent they have become. As they grow, you will continue to teach - and to demand independence and excellence. In this way, they will become competent.
When people drive cars, sit at their desks at work, or express themselves through a hobby or sport, they feel their competence, or its lack. They esteem themselves as competent at their jobs or their pastimes. Granted, some people never learn to measure themselves accurately. But self-esteem is nothing more that one's measure of one's self, whether done well or not.
Self-esteem cannot be given. And it is not something to be derided. Competence and knowing one's self is all there is to it. You want kids with good self-esteem? Let them be wrong sometimes. Then show them how to correct themselves. Let them know that you expect them to become competent; don't praise them for nothing. The former communicates to them that they are capable of more; the latter that self-delusion is OK.