We parents remember times in our lives when we didn’t feel very good about ourselves. Perhaps we tried hard to do well at something and still failed. Maybe you share my unforgettable memories of being chosen last for team sports or being called Skinny Legs. Whatever the memory, the message is the same; “You’re not okay.” We want to protect our children from those unpleasant experiences.
What is Self-Esteem?
Self-esteem is the set of beliefs or feelings we have about ourselves. Those beliefs and feelings may be accurate or skewed or entirely false, but they affect our attitudes and our behaviors in important ways. Our children need to learn they are okay—that they’re loved unconditionally. They need to know they have value just because they were born into the human family.
When a child has healthy self-esteem he or she is better able to cope with stresses. It’s possible to move through a tough experience by falling back on the knowledge, “That was hard, but I’m fine.” Self-esteem builds enjoyment of life and an optimism that will help overcome negative experiences without undue frustration or pain.
A child who doesn’t believe in his or her own value will be a target for anxiety and frustration in hard times. A failure will seem overly important and be added to the list of things “I can’t do right.” Poor self-esteem can lead to depression and withdrawal from the fun and activities a child should be enjoying in daily life.
How You Can Help
There are so many ways adults can nurture and protect healthy self-esteem and here are some of them:
Begin early to encourage persistence in your children. Say, “Yes, you can,”rather than, “Ohh, be careful!” Encourage second and third tries within the framework of safety, of course.
From an early age allow your child to make choices. Even if it’s only, “Do you want to wear your red or blue pajamas?” Making choices builds confidence and encourages problem-solving ability.
Phrase your comments in honest, but positive ways. “I’m proud of the effort you put out” rather than “You’ll do better next time.”
Be a role model for a healthy balance between self-confidence and humility.
Have a positive attitude toward your own successes and failures and take them in stride.
Use a tough experience as a teaching tool. Everyone fails sometimes and can learn to improve skills, persevere, or accept the fact that they need to focus on another activity.
Show lots of love and affection to children whenever possible. Hugs, notes of encouragement, and pats on the back work just as well as words. It’s important to know that love is constant no matter what the performance has been.
When there is a problem, give helpful and accurate feedback. “I see that you were very angry. What could you do differently next time?” will redirect the child’s attention to a more positive reaction in the future.
Direct children to activities where they will experience success. Sports, academics, mind games, art, telling jokes, whatever they enjoy. Success builds confidence and confidence grows self-esteem.
Don’t compare one child with another. Each person is a unique individual with his or her own set of skills and abilities. Comparisons make someone the loser.
Give your child responsibilities suited to his or her age. Learning to work and contribute to the well-being of the family is an important part of building healthy self-esteem.
We all want our children to be successful and have happy, fulfilling lives. To accomplish that they need good mental and emotional health derived from positive self-concepts. We need to feed their self-esteem as conscientiously as we feed their bodies so they’ll be able to weather the inevitable storms of life.
Jan Pierce, M.Ed., is a retired teacher and author of Homegrown Readers and Homegrown Family Fun. Find Jan at www.janpierce.net.