Have you ever noticed that there are some children who seem to just take the world by the horns, who are confident, friendly, and bounce back from set-backs? And then there are kids who seem defeated, don’t feel confident about themselves and lack a spirit that says “I can do this”?
What makes the difference between these children is their level of self-esteem. Many parents know that self-esteem is important – but what really is this vague concept and how can we instill it in our children?
Self-esteem plays a large role in whether a child will be successful as a human being; part of its power lies in the fact that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right.”
Self-esteem determines how willing a person is to try new challenges and to persist in the face difficulty, how they react to failure and mistakes, how they deal with setbacks and disappointments. It determines how content a person feels, how safe he feels with himself and his world, how competent he feels, how willing to take risks, survive losses, and to reach his potential and to thrive in life.
Some quick facts:
- Self-esteem exists to some degree in all people. This core level of self-esteem varies from being very healthy to very unhealthy, with most people’s self-esteem fluctuating in the middle ranges.
- A person should not have to earn a healthy level of self-esteem. Everyone deserves to have healthy self-esteem and has an inherent right to feel good about themselves.
- Healthy self-esteem is not competitive and is not a loud conceit; it is a feeling of inner self-worth and a quiet sense of self-respect.
- There is not a need to “one up” somebody else by putting the other person down, or by finding fault with others, or by blaming or accusing them.
- There is no need to brag about oneself.
- It is a feeling that one is glad to be just who he is.
- Healthy self-esteem comes through understanding and accepting one’s talents, strengths, limitations, and weaknesses, and then setting realistic goals and expectations.
- A person’s level of self-esteem is not set in stone. Rather it fluctuates around a core, relatively stable level. Let’s say a child, when getting dressed in the morning, finds just the shirt he wants to wear and puts it on without needing help. His self-esteem may rise. But when having breakfast, he spills the milk he is trying to pour into his cereal bowl. This may lower his circumstantial or temporary self-esteem. However, these happenings only temporarily increase or decrease self-esteem. Ultimately, self-esteem will return to its core or base level.
Self-esteem is the degree to which an individual values himself, believes he has worth to himself and to the world around him, has confidence in himself and in his ability to cope successfully with life’s challenges.
How do children with healthy self-esteem act and feel? They:
- stand up for their values.
- feel they are important.
- attempt new challenges.
- believe they have the skills to tackle obstacles.
- persist until they reach their goals.
- know that they don’t have to be perfect; accept and admit their mistakes and failures.
- act responsibly.
- are accountable for their actions.
- express a greater level of happiness than people with lower self-esteem.
The concept of self-esteem is a relatively new field of research as psychologists in the 60’s and 70’s began to look into how healthy people develop, rather than focusing totally on psychopathology. In these early years of the self-esteem movement, the experts emphasized more how a child feels and not so much what the child does. So the concern was that children should feel good about themselves by believing that they are loved and special.
This “feel good” philosophy led to parents who were afraid to correct their children, to ‘burden’ them with chores for fear that the children would feel pressured or to allow their children to experience any frustration which they thought could lower the children’s self-esteem. Parents thought they were doing the right thing by rescuing their children from any mistakes or hard work so that the children would presumably feel good about themselves. In essence, parents were sending the message “You are wonderful no matter what you do or how you act.”
Actually, what was taking place in these families was that children were learning that they could not solve their own problems or cope with difficulties. Children didn’t develop coping skills and they didn’t learn to persevere in the face of difficult tasks. By avoiding feelings of failure and the need to persist and achieve mastery, the self-esteem movement actually made it more difficult for children to feel competent and capable.
Luckily, the current trend expands the scope of self-esteem to include:
- loving and cherishing our children just because they exist so that children can feel lovable and worthwhile; and
- acknowledging children’s strengths and accomplishments so that children can feel capable by:
- pointing out mistakes so our children can learn from them,
- holding them accountable for their behavior,
- giving them the opportunity to cope with failure and to delay gratification, so that they can see that they can handle life’s challenges.
Children need to fail and to feel disappointed, frustrated, worried and angry so they can learn to deal with these inevitable life experiences when they are young and still within the safety of a loving family. They also need to be held to certain realistic standards, have expectations placed on them that they strive to meet and be held accountable for their behavior.
So parents need to balance the “soft, feeling good” piece of self-esteem with this responsibility and accountability side, which will build character in their children. In this way, children can learn to cope with failure and disappointment, they can realize they can learn from their mistakes, and they can learn to delay gratification. From meeting expectations and persevering, they will gain a belief that they can master their environment, and experience feelings of accomplishment. Through handling challenges with persistence, they will begin to see obstacles as challenges to overcome and develop into strong problem solvers.
Children are not born into this world with a picture of themselves. Rather they develop an image of themselves and how valuable and lovable they are over time based upon their interactions with their primary caregivers and how these people respond to them. How you respond to their needs, to their requests, and to their attempts to grow tell your children what you think of them. Known as a “psychological mirror,” your words, tone, and actions reflect whether you see your children as being worthwhile or an annoyance and whether you see them as capable or inept. You can be aware of letting them know you love them (see below for details), that you willingly will meet their needs, that you believe in them, and that you are excited to see them grow and explore and mature.
Another important way to develop self-esteem in children is to create a dependable, trustworthy relationship with your children in which they feel safe, accepted, and cherished. Having this model in their minds gives them the courage to take risks, grow, and explore the world, knowing that if they run into trouble, they have that relationship with you to come back to. Your children will know that you ‘have their back.’ Here are some examples:
- Your 2 year-old wanders to the other side of the room, but comes back to you to literally touch base.
- Your 7 year-old is willing to sleep at a friend’s house, knowing that if he gets scared, you will pick him up and bring him home.
- Your 13 year-old is being excluded from her social circle by some of the girls, and she feels safe enough to talk to you about it.
- Your college-age student is able to go away to school because she knows that you will let her come home to visit (touch base) when she needs to and that she can keep in touch electronically as much as she needs to.
There are two different kinds of messages that we can communicate to children that will directly help to support their self-esteem. These are Being and Doing Messages and together they form the two legs of a “ladder.” Just as a ladder needs its two legs in order to be strong and stable, you need to provide both Being and Doing Messages for your children to have a strong internal foundation.
The Being Messages refer to the lovable part of the self-esteem equation. They communicate unconditional love. It is valuing our children for who they are and embracing all of the things that make them unique, even some of the traits that make them challenging to raise. It is one of the ways we let them know we cherish them. People need to hear ‘Being Messages’ throughout their lives. Examples of being messages include:
- “I love you.”
- “I am so glad you are my son.” “You are the best son I could ever have wanted!”
- “I love to watch you grow.”
- “You are important to me.”
- “Hearing your laugh makes me smile.”
- “I am glad you are here.”
- “Welcome home.”
- “When you feel sad, you can always talk to me about what is bothering you.”
We can also convey Being Messages through our actions, such as a hug, sitting next to them, giving a back rub, smiling when they enter a room, or giving them the greatest gift – our time and positive attention. All of these words and actions tell our children that we consider them a joy, not a burden and that they are worthy of being loved.
Over-doing the Being Messages, without balancing them with the Doing Messages, can cause children to become self-centered, demanding, entitled, without an effective work ethic which would help them realize they need to put forth effort to achieve a goal.
The Doing Messages speak to the capable part of the self-esteem equation. Feeling competent leads to people feeling good about themselves. These messages refer to all the things our children can do, their special areas of talent, and also to their potential and their growth. For example,
- “Look how hard you worked on this project. That’s what I call being persistent.”
- “With practice, you can do it.”
- “Thank you for your help. It made the chore go so much faster.”
- “You have a good eye for color.”
- “I believe that you’ll learn to ride your bike really soon – I can see how hard you are working on it.”
- “It was very thoughtful of you to call Grandma on her birthday.”
- High five when child does well in a karate competition.
Doing messages change as children mature and as they work on different areas of development. For example, you might comment on a 3 year-old learning to use the potty, but you would not make mention when a 6 year-old goes to the bathroom by himself, if he has long ago mastered that task. You might comment on a complicated lego structure that a 6 year- old built. And you might enthusiastically highlight how well a high school student organized a school report he was working on.
Overdoing the Doing Messages, without balancing them with enough Being Messages, might result in a child who feels the need to be a perfectionist, who does not feel worthy or lovable if he is not achieving, and who feels empty and insatiable inside, as if he can never get enough love.
One of the most common and effective ways to build children’s self-esteem is to praise them. Praise is a way of saying, “I like what you did!” When you see a child doing something that you want to encourage, praise it! “Catch them being good.” You can do it with a word, a phrase, a gesture or a facial expression. Children crave their parents’ attention; if they do not get attention from positive behavior, they will seek out negative attention. So acknowledge and praise the behaviors you want to see repeated.
But believe it or not, there are more or less effective ways to praise. To have your message really get through to your children and have them take it in, praise should be:
- immediate (especially with very young children);
- specific about the behavior, trait or accomplishment; for example, “You were so kind to the new girl in your class when you asked her to play with you and your friends.”
- sincere, not hollow or flat , but also not excessive or overdone in frequency or intensity – it should match the situation – children can sense false praise and it can cause them to discount what you say and even to doubt themselves.
Praise is a 3-step process:
- Describe what you see: “I see a really clean floor.”
- Describe what you feel: “I feel that I can count on you to do a thorough job when I ask you to help out.”
- Sum up the child’s praiseworthy behavior in a word: “That’s what I call real cooperation.”
You don’t always need to use all 3 steps, but this format is descriptive and gives the child specific feedback about how you perceive his positive behavior and his good character.
When you praise your child, avoid the words “always” or “never” because children tend to discount the good intentions that come after those words. For example, if you tell your child, “You are always so thoughtful,” she may think about all the times she was not thoughtful. These absolute words also can put pressure on a child to feel like they ‘always’ need to live up to that description of them.
Affirmations are specific types of praise that give children encouragement and let them know that you support them, believe in them and in their ability to grow and become competent. This is a way you can cheer your children on in life. You can affirm:
- a trait– “You were so conscientious about getting all your homework done before your soccer practice.”
- a potential – “Sean, I know that one day soon you will be able to ride the two wheeler – you will be able to just jump on it and off you will go!”
- an effort – “Sam, you put all the toys you were playing with back in their place.”
- an accomplishment – “Sarah, you mastered the new piece on the piano so well. I just loved listening to you play it.
- an intention – “You were going to send the card to Grandma for her birthday. That was a good and kind thought, and I know that you would have done it if you could have.”
- a struggle -“It is so hard when your best friend moves away. You spent so many hours playing games with him. You are going to miss him.”
A review of the ‘history’ of the self-esteem movement described parents’ fear of criticizing their children and desire to protect them from making mistakes so they wouldn’t feel badly about themselves. But by ignoring the inevitable mistakes that children make, we do them a big disservice. We deprive them of the opportunity to deal with the mistakes in a way that actually helps them develop a positive and useful attitude toward making errors and which contributes to higher self-esteem.
Criticism can be harsh and negative and can damage children’s self-esteem. It only tells a child what he did wrong and does not tell a child what he can do instead, how he can correct his mistake. It can leave the child feeling badly about himself and helpless to change.
In contrast, when correcting children, parents point out what children did wrong, show them or talk with them about what they can do to avoid making the same mistake in the future, and they give them opportunities to practice, to “get it right” and to make amends. Done in a positive way, this kind of correction communicates to your child that you believe in him and believe that he wants to and is able to do better.
Correcting teaches a child that:
- it is alright to make mistakes,
- you can learn from mistakes,
- there are things you can do to feel good about yourself after you do mess up,
- you can make amends and make up for a mistake,
- no one is perfect.
- they won’t be shamed or yelled at or punished if they make a mistake.
These are important lessons for children to learn to help them deal with frustration, failure, or not doing so well. These are all ideas that will raise children’s core belief system and increase their resilience and their ability to deal with the challenges they will inevitably face in life.
For example, instead of yelling – “How could you spill the container of milk? You are so clumsy! Don’t you know how to pour a glass of milk? I’m going to do it for from now on – you obviously can’t do it.”, a parent could say “I see you spilled the milk. Get a sponge and a paper towel so we can clean it up. Then let’s see how you could pour it into the glass so it doesn’t spill.”
This concept refers to areas in which a child has shown capability, skill, talent or interest. With some children it can be easy to find their strengths – they may be a natural athlete or have artistic or musical talent – certainly with these kids, parents can support their talents and their interests.
For other children at certain stages, it can feel more difficult to identify their strengths. When times are tough, that is when our children really need us to find their “islands of competency” and to help them see themselves in the best light. It can be as simple as finding the one letter on a page of “A’s” that is well-formed or catching them one time showing consideration for another. We can “catch them” being the person they and we want them to be.
We can also share stories of previous successes from their childhood when they may have overcome obstacles or dealt with difficult situations. We can assure them that they possess the skills to succeed by being a storehouse for their finer moments. For example, perhaps your child is upset entering a new class. You could remind him of a time when he was younger and within 5 minutes of entering the playground had made a friend and they were playing a game they created. You can recall how easily he was able to make a new friend in that situation and you can assure him that he still possesses these same qualities.
The following list includes specific things you can do to help children to like themselves, feel worthwhile, lovable and competent.
- Be a good role model. Let your children see that you feel good about yourself. All that you do to promote self-esteem in your children…give to yourself.
- Emphasize the positive things children do each day, not the negative. “Catch them being good.”
- Be a warehouse of your children’s success. Keep a photo album on each child; look through it with your child occasionally. Let your children know the ways they are unique, a one-of-a-kind special person.
- Be someone your children can count on for support and encouragement when they need it. Be your child’s secure base so they know you are in their corner, believe in them and will be there for them if they need you.
- Have reasonable expectations for your children and help them to set reasonable goals for themselves. Expectations that are too high lead to feelings of helplessness and incompetence; expectations that are too low lead to lack of effort and lack of a sense of accomplishment.
- Assign meaningful and appropriate tasks to do. This helps children feel capable and develop a sense of competency. Chores also contribute to a child feeling a connection to his family and a sense that he is a needed and an important member of his family ‘community.’
- Help create situations in which your children can experience success. Provide lessons or opportunities where they can develop a sense of mastery. This helps a child to feel powerful and capable.
- Set limits and establish boundaries; this helps children feel safe and make sense of their world. Define rules clearly and enforce them consistently.
- Write thank you notes to your children for a gift received or a job well done. Read them to your child if needed.
- Take children’s feelings and thoughts seriously; never belittle them. Listening and empathizing is one of the most important things you can do to provide a secure base and to strengthen your relationship and connection with your children; having a sense of connection to people one cares about is one of the elements of healthy self-esteem.
- Discuss problems with your children without using judgment or blame.
- Spend time together; participate in shared activities together. This kind of focused attention is another way to build a sense of connection and raise self-esteem.
- Give some undivided attention to your children’s play once in a while. This might be the only setting in which some children feel confident. Parents can play a part in creating opportunities for children to do their best. “I really enjoy coloring with you.” “The fort you made is a great place to hide.”
- Use humor in a note to remind your children to do a chore, etc. “The health inspector will inspect this room at 4 PM today.” “These clothes do not have legs and feet and I don’t expect them to grow any in 24 hours. Please help them out by putting them in their drawers.”
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