by Cynthia M. Braden, MFT
A great deal of research has been conducted about what helps children develop a healthy self-esteem and not veer off into the extremes of depressive or sociopathic tendencies. You may have noticed that trends in advice seem to be well... trendy! You may feel like you can never fully depend on the advice you may be hearing on the topic of helping children develop appropriate self-esteem. We may run ourselves ragged getting material things, lessons, schools and socializing trying to make sure our child feels 'good enough' and finds and excels in his/her niche early and easily. But what really is 'authentic' self-esteem in children, and how can adults help?
Now we are saying 'authentic' self-esteem. This may be somewhat different from the conception of 'healthy' self-esteem depending on your perspective or interpretation of a child's behavior, attitude or affect (mood).
For example, our educational system appears to make an effort to 'equalize' children so everyone can feel special. Gone are the days of the 'smart kid' and the 'dumb kid' classes. In children's sports, the same is true. Everyone gets a trophy whether they were any good or not, whether they even got off the bench, or whether the team made a single score all season.
Children realize that the world is competitive, yet everyone is getting a trophy or a particular reward. Even the worst player on the team gets the same reward as everyone else, so maybe it doesn't mean much. If it doesn't mean much, then do I have my self-esteem stimulated by receiving it?
While this seems like a good idea, let's be honest, kids are imitating adults. They know exactly what is going on. There is only one winner in sports and all types of competition. One person gets the job, the award, the promotion. In real life, everyone is not going to get a particular reward, but we as adults seem to persist in this fashion, perhaps so children will have a kinder, gentler place to grow up. Adults may believe in vain that this method will help children develop 'healthy' self-esteem.
We submit to you that children are wise and know exactly what is going on. They are not going to be able to utilize these false mechanisms so that they can magically develop authentic self-esteem. The self will not be fooled.
Adults pursue this method of helping children develop self-esteem in good faith... so the super excellers don't get all the attention and praise, and everyone has an equal shot at feeling good about themselves. But the children know it's not real. Children understand a natural or biological pecking order which is based on prowess, strength, beauty, intelligence, verbal skills, talent, socio-economic factors and most importantly Actual Accomplishments.
While some of the factors just mentioned are largely outside the control of the individual (some things you're just born with), the concept of Actual Accomplishments is completely within in the control of the individual and leads to the development of Authentic Self-Esteem and healthy personality structure.
Children should not learn that you don't need to exert hard and continuous effort to get rewarded by life - this 3D reality that we currently live in - that we can get what we want by complaining, demanding, expecting, lazing around, having tantrums or being too dependent for our stage in the lifespan. We worry that children are learning that it's not worth it to try too hard. And that other people are responsible for most things, even my own behavior. Lavish rewards are ubiquitous and continuous. This practice leads to the child's loss of self-efficacy (being able to do things by myself) and trust in you (because children know 'the jig is up') - paradoxically the opposite of what is intended.
Taking it a step further, we certainly don't want children as they become teenagers to become entitled and demanding whether or not they have actually contributed to anything, while parents are continuing to run themselves ragged. Don't you hate when that happens... when children become entitled and unappreciative? And turn into tyrants? As a parent, this can really hurt Our self-esteem!
So back to the original question, How Does a Parent Help a Child Develop Authentic Self-Esteem?
The following parenting attributes have been associated with a child’s high self-esteem:
1. Mutual expression of verbal and physical affection. Don't be afraid to hug and kiss and say "I love you, I'm proud of you. You are a very special person." The child receives love and validation just because s/he exists, not dependent on any performance or attribute. Demonstrate your affection by giving attention and listening without interrupting, teaching or judging. Choose to demonstrate authentic love to a child by giving your attention. You can say "I love you" all day, but if you are interrupting, criticizing, blaming, teaching, disciplining... the child learns to feel bad about her/himself - ashamed and guilty - the opposite of self-esteem. (We're all familiar with those feelings, correct?)
2. Parent is concerned about the child's problems. Be patient and keep a balance with letting the child struggle to accomplish things for himself. When a child has a problem, task or goal and feels confident and motivated to handle it by her/himself, or when he feels respected by parent, teacher or peer to handle things, this is authentic self-esteem. And her/his parent is standing by giving attention as an observer to provide support if needed, but not interfering, teaching, guiding, or taking control. The parent is wise enough to be excruciatingly patient and let the child struggle to accomplish things for her/himself. In this way the child learns to reach for higher and higher achievements and goals, perpetuating a feedback loop in which the environment itself rewards the child on a reliable basis. This is Authentic Self Esteem.
3. Harmony in the home. Adults must learn and model self-control and communication skills in order to create a peaceful and safe environment free of fighting, intrusive behaviors, media that is not age appropriate, and/or substance abuse. Being exposed to trauma in the home is very detrimental to self-efficacy and self-esteem as the child learns to feel afraid, helpless and out of control.
4. Participation in joint family activities. Parents and children participate regularly together with or without other families. Make sure these activities are focused on something besides electronics and have a positive focus.
5. Parent available to give competent, organized help when needed. (First, this means that the parent knows how to be competent and organized! lol) Parents can sometimes be too frazzled or preoccupied to help much. This is not a good thing. Try to be calm and organized, and remember to avoid doing things that the child is learning to do her/himself because you're in a hurry.
6. Clear and fair rules are established. Rules should be discussed in a family meeting and posted on the fridge. Everyone should be allowed to contribute ideas to the rule-making, although parents make the final decision as to what goes on the rules list. A new generation of children may have valuable input as to the family they would like to live in.
7. Everyone follows the rules. For example... Parents are not allowed to call each other names either!
8. Let children have freedom within limits that have been clearly explained. Make sure expectations are clearly understood and thank children when they have done a good job. Don't look for things to criticize. Also make sure that fair, reasonable and age appropriate consequences are understood and implemented consistently without excessive emotionality. (Talk to a therapist if you need a discipline plan, or to understand and implement age-appropriate consequences.) A child feels good about her/himself when he understands parameters that are consistently present.
For children, being able to do things by themselves and feeling skilled and competent is an important developmental process leading to authentic self-esteem. Children should be encouraged to identify and develop talents and interests so they can authentically feel good, and start to fulfill their purpose early.