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Building Self-Esteem in Children

Updated on January 31, 2013
The confidence to try new things
The confidence to try new things | Source

In previous generations, many parents focused on instilling in their children, strict, unquestioning obedience to authority; they thought it important for children to know their place, and to be seen, not heard.

Now, we realize that these qualities are better suited to instances of military combat - not child-rearing.

The problem with these qualities became evident over the years: many children who were blindly obedient to any authority (in families, in school, and in church) were easier targets for child molesters and were less likely to reveal the problem.

Children who were taught to know their place were discouraged from reaching higher goals.

Children who were taught to be seen, not heard received the message that they were less worthy individuals and that their opinions and creativity had no value.

Since a child's personality is primarily established within the first 5 years of their lives, many children grew to be push-overs (or buillies) and received very low amounts of respect from their peers and authorities, therefore, further debasing their self-esteem and creativity. These children often gave up without even trying to conquer a task, were unable to healthily handle stressors, and had a harder time fitting in socially.

Why Build Self-Esteem in my Child

Helping your child develop self-esteem, from birth to adulthood, will serve them for a lifetime. Our job as parents is to develop healthy, balanced, confident adults - doing so provides not only protection for them but also puts them into the category of balanced, high achievers - no matter how modest or high-reaching those goals are.

  • They feel confident in their morals and values and do not hesitate to deploy them in times of challenge, especially when you're not there to protect them.
  • They are less likely to cave to peer-pressure and engage in unhealthy behaviors like unprotected sex, binge drinking, and drug abuse.

Self-esteem benefits job seekers.
Self-esteem benefits job seekers. | Source
  • They grow to be confident adults, which is a crucial quality in developing stable relationships, achieving higher education goals, impressing employers when looking for good jobs and when seeking advancement in the workplace, and dealing with controversy and stress.

Discipline vs Punishment

Building self-esteem should begin at birth. Every interaction we have with a child sends a message to that child, whether conscious or unconscious, that they are inherently valuable or not.

  • Discipline: While children who receive consistent discipline thrive, understanding their boundaries, that the boundaries are age-appropriate and for their safety, gradually expanding; and receiving frequent constructive feedback (not critical or aimed at the child directly, such as "You did a really bad job on this assignment" vs "How do you think you did on this assignment? How could it be improved?") from their parents and teachers, allows the child to thrive, be unique and creative within the boundaries, and even test the boundaries, feeling assured that discipline is consistent and fair.

Children who are punished are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors.

  • Punishment, on the other hand, sends the message that there is something inherently wrong with the child and that they don't deserve respect, especially in the case of spanking. Punishment often develops children who lie, are sneaky, don't believe that people will like them for who they truly are, and are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors, since they feel unworthy of love.

Building Self-Esteem

As parents, it's our duty to seek out and focus on ways to build self-esteem - this is not to say that we are sending the message to our child that they are special or better than their peers, but that they have an intrinsic value and that their thoughts and efforts matter.

This is not about simple achievement. Any child can receive an outside reward for achievements, but in life, we cannot achieve at every pursuit. There will be times that we fail. What will your child think about themselves when they fail? Will they worry that they've lost your approval? Or, will they have the interior fortitude of spirit to realize that failure is a part of life and simply a form of feedback that they can use as a learning tool.

What is your child’s self-esteem based on?


Therefore, it's important to be careful what you child's self-esteem is based on. For instance, if your child draws a picture of any kind - hopefully something with crazy colors and unrecognizable form, and presents the picture to you, instead of automatically praising the picture (thus sending the message to the child that their value depends on your approval), try being (honestly) pleasantly surprised, with a "Wow, look at that! Are you happy with this picture? Tell me more about it!" This sends the message that they determine what makes them happy and what constitutes success within themselves, despite outside criticism or praise.

Why It's So Important to Be Careful of What You Say

Since my daughter is nearly 21, I have the benefit of hindsight, seeing areas of child-rearing that I can be proud of and those where I unconsciously messed up.

For instance, my daughter started creating artwork from age 1, and so I kept her supplied with lots of different mediums and let her 'go at it' only providing instruction if she requested it. I used the "How do you feel about this picture?" method, and she is now a self-driven visual artist that truly amazes me. She does not feel confined to certain mediums or methods, but takes on any idea that enters her creative mind. So, in this instance, I give myself a little pat on the back and think, "Well done!"

However, she recently revealed to me that she never sings - not even by herself in the car or in the shower. I was really surprised, but she said she remembers when she was experimenting with singing and playing the drums that I made some joke about that not being her strong suit, and it stuck with her all this time. I feel really bad about that. Urgh.

Lesson learned: Don't judge. This lesson spills over into random conversations with your child about yourself, other children, people in magazines, or on tv. Criticizing yourself or other people for their appearances, lack of achievement, or any other reason, sends the message to your child that this is what's done to them also, and that their self-esteem depends on comparisons with others. Respect for every person and their uniqueness should be stressed.

Behaviors can be examined and discussed, without judgment. For instance, "Did you see that boy push that girl down? How did that make her feel? How would you have felt?" So, rather than teaching your child to judge others' behaviors, placing labels on them (good, bad, beautiful, ugly, smart, stupid), you are exhibiting that how our behavior affects others is of primary concern - thus also developing a child with empathy and compassion.

If playing for fun, team sports can be a great self-esteem builder.
If playing for fun, team sports can be a great self-esteem builder. | Source

Sports

Sports - until they are at an all-consuming competitive stage - are extremely valuable when developing a child's self-esteem. During the couple decades where you can help them pursue their interests, it is again important for them to not judge themselves by their successes or failures. Avoid coaches who have a 'win at any cost' mentality, but search out those that focus on the fun of the game and the effort put forth.

Know that your child will be interested in pursuing many, many activities during this time, and dropping one activity and pursuing another does not mean that they failed at the first - it just wasn't their thing or they just didn't enjoy it - which is a totally viable reason to move on, because their opinions are valuable. Just make sure that the reason they didn't enjoy it was because they weren't the best in the group.

In the case of extra-curricular activities, balance is the key. More activities do not equal more self-esteem - they could just mean burnout, lower academic scores, and a disappointment in themselves. You can help your child choose from one to two activities at a time, as long as schoolwork is kept at the forefront.

Other Opportunities

Keep an eye out and talk to other parents about any opportunity to build self-esteem. There really doesn't have to be a special event or pursuit that offers this chance, just day-to-day life, lots of open communication, especially listening, and setting good examples by our being open-minded, non-judgmental, and tolerant of ourselves and others.

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      Yvette Stupart PhD 4 years ago from Jamaica

      I agree that what we say to children can affect how they see themselves, and whether or not they will attempt trying out certain activities. Having an affirming and nurturing home environment is important in developing high self-esteem in children.

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      Samantha Harris 4 years ago from New York

      This is great advice, thank you.