What is self-esteem anyway? The definition of self-esteem is to value oneself, or to regard oneself as being worth-while. Those are good goals, but most children I know have no problem with self-esteem. In fact, it is quite normal for very young children to value themselves above anyone else as you will soon see if you watch them interact with playmates. Their world, during their early years revolves around their comfort, their desires, and their possessions.
As they grow older, they learn, often through the teaching and discipline of their parents and siblings, that they are expected to share and to consider the comfort, desires, and possessions of others.
Unfortunately, some parents today have the idea that unless they constantly praise and affirm their child, he or she will grow up lacking enough self-esteem to get by in today’s world.
Just the opposite may be true. Children who continue to focus on only their own personhood, may end up with extremely high self-esteem but very little worth as seen from the viewpoint of those around them.
We’ve all met parents who praise every imaginable act performed by their children. If the child says, “Da Da,” you would think they had recited the Greek alphabet backwards. “Wonderful,” Mama says. “Isn’t that wonderful, Daddy? Junior said, ‘Da Da.’ Let’s call Grandma and tell her. Good for you. You are such a smart boy for saying, ‘Da Da..'”
Later, when takes his first steps, the parents are still turning handsprings over every normal action their child performs. And, when a few more months have gone by, potty training is just made for building self-esteem. “Oh my goodness. Just look. Everyone, come look at what Junior did in his potty. Let’s all clap. Isn’t he just the smartest little boy you ever saw?”
Well, let’s hope most of us haven’t gone quite that far overboard, but you do have to admit that praising kids is getting a little out of hand these days. Here are a few suggestions to help us get a little more realistic about building self-esteem in children.
1. Start thinking of building self-esteem as building self-confidence.
There is a distinguishable difference in the two terms. Building self esteem is putting the emphasis on making one’s self all-important. Kind of like saying, “Look at me. I’m worth looking at.” That isn’t what we want for our kids at all. Instead, building self-confidence is like learning that you are in charge of what you become. Your behavior is what makes you a worthwhile person.
2. Recognize that some kids really do have a problem with self-esteem and determine to do something about it.
Some children get the idea that they are not as worthwhile as most of their friends and, because of this, often hang back from entering into group activities. Other children may take advantage of them. These are the kids that really need some effort expended to help them develop some self-esteem.
Go out of your way to find things you can say that will show these kids they do have value. Search out a real talent, or help them develop one and let them know you admire it.
If they can sing, make sure they have opportunities to do that. If they are good at sports, see that they get a chance to participate whenever possible. If they look especially nice, say so, without being condescending.
Avoid telling children they are cute or pretty. They had nothing to do with they way they look. If they are cute or pretty, they already have enough people telling them that they are. Instead tell them they are pleasant or fun to be around; tell them you like to hear their funny jokes, or that you think they are special because they are always kind to other people.
3. Don’t praise kids just to be praising them, but search for something real to praise in their behavior or attitude.
Just saying, “You are so smart,” isn’t a good way to go. Saying, “It was nice of you to help me clean up after Scout meeting. You sure saved me a lot of work.” would sound so much more sincere and still give a child the feeling of being appreciated, and that he or she was performing a worth-while activity.
Saying, “I’m really pleased that your behavior on the playground has improved. It shows you are really trying and I’m proud of you,” is a nice way to focus on behavior rather than looks.
4. Use words that make kids feel as though you are treating them as equals.
I like to use the words, “Thank you,” often. Kids, like adults, enjoy the feeling that they have done something worthy of your thanks.
I also like words like, “I knew you could do that.” This builds a child’s self-confidence by inferring that you had confidence that he or she could perform a task asked of them.
I hope the suggestions above prove useful to you. My goal is to see more and more parents teaching their kids that their looks and their intelligence are not the things that make them worth while in this world. Rather, it is their attitude and behavior toward others that give them real value.