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How to Provide Self Esteem in our Children

A Major Goal of Parenthood, Childcare, and Education is to Give Children the Chance to Feel They are a "WOW."

Self-worth or self-esteem is what children think of themselves or the way they view themselves. It takes quite a bit of growing up for children to begin to picture themselves as separate persons who are able to do and to think for themselves. The formation of the self- image begins very early. It results largely from relationships with adults close to the children, especially parents. When we cuddle babies, coo at them, and meet their needs, we're saying to them, "You and your feelings and needs are important to me."

A child must have self-esteem to feel secure and be ready to meet life with courage and vigor. The child who lacks self-esteem will be fearful of new experiences and new challenges.

Occasional uncertainty and self-doubt are natural for children—and adults as well. But when children chronically lack self-confidence, every occasion can become stressful. A negative self-image can be devastating to a child's inner motivation and well-being.

Whether a child's self-image is positive or negative may depend on you. Parents and caregivers supply many things to children, including the image that children have of themselves. We feed our children to nourish their bodies, provide moral and spiritual values to nourish their souls, and offer music and stories to enrich their lives. At the same time, whether we are conscious of it or not, we are imparting to our children feelings which they fit together to build their self-image.

We are all vulnerable to the damage that others can do to us, but children are especially vulnerable. At the same time, children are very susceptible to positive steps to build or restore their self-image.

Since self-esteem is so important to a child's present and future happiness and achievement, we need to think about what we can do to make our children feel capable and worthy. Here are a few ways parents and caregivers can help young children feel good about themselves.

Give unconditional love. Perhaps the most basic prescription for assuring a child's feeling of self-worth is a generous dose of love and tenderness. It's especially important to appreciate children for what they are, not just for what they do. Psychologists call this "unconditional positive regard"—total or nearly total acceptance of the child.

Acceptance is easy if your child always does what you want. But total acceptance means that even when the child does something undesirable, you still show acceptance for the child while letting him or her know you dislike the behavior.

Fred Rogers (TV's Mister Rogers) puts it well: We need to communicate to our children verbally and nonverbally. "I like you as you are. I think you turned out nicely. I like you as you are, exactly and precisely."

Help children to help themselves. Another crucial factor in the development of self-esteem is the way you offer help to your children. A particularly revealing test is how you respond when a child asks, "Will you do it for me?" Above all, don't rush in and take over. Suggest ways your youngster might solve the problem himself. Some parents worry so much about their child getting things right that they tell their youngsters word by word, movement by movement, what to do in life. These bossy parents tend to have children with low self-esteem. Parents of children with high self-esteem tend to make suggestions and then stand back so the children have a chance to grapple with the situation on their own. On occasion, become a follower so the child can experience being a leader. For example, let the child choose which path to take in the park. This approach tells youngsters that you trust their abilities.

Provide opportunities for success. Although it's important to set high standards for children, don't overestimate their capabilities. Be sensitive to what they can and can't do. Then provide opportunities and offer activities that allow children to succeed as often as possible. Try to point out at least five things they do right or well each day. You could say: "I like the nice way you are petting the kitty." "Look how well you stack those blocks." "You and your sister are playing very nicely together."

Show appreciation. Remember that little children need to be encouraged, appreciated, listened to, and assured they're all right. Show true admiration for who they are. Let them know how happy you are they are part of your family. Why not say to a child, just as to an adult, "I enjoy being with you. It's fun." The self-esteem that you nurture will enable your child to stand on her own and achieve her own full potential for living.

Cheer their accomplishments. To feel good about themselves, children must feel that what they do and what they have learned are important. When shoes are tied right, remember to show appreciation for the achievement. Don't say, "I thought you'd never learn" or "It's about time." If children are told often enough that they are dumb, they may believe it—and become just that (the "self-fulfilling prophecy"). Remind them frequently of the abilities they are acquiring—the words they understand and the strengths they are showing in coping with feelings, solving problems, and being creative.

Pay attention to them. Talking to children, showing interest in their activities and efforts, and generally paying attention to them helps children feel important. It's easy to forget to pay attention. A parent faces many demands for time and energy: work, housework, civic responsibilities, social activities. If the only way a child can get attention is to be rowdy, disruptive, or obnoxious, then that is the way the child will do it. Feeling unappreciated or rejected, children resort to misbehavior. This, of course, is not appreciated and leads to further rejection.

Avoid comparisons. In their eagerness to have their children excel and be a credit to them, sometimes parents make the mistake of measuring one child against another. This competitiveness can cause children to feel that they must be something they are not to win parents' approval. Keep in mind that children in the same family are often very unlike each other. Respect each child for his or her individuality and praise him or her for achievements.

Try not to embarrass or humiliate children. Children's feelings are even more easily wounded than those of grownups. Young minds are stung by what they see as contempt or ridicule, by lack of consideration, by intrusion on their privacy. Even though children lack the words to register a protest, they may brood bitterly over such experiences. Often they don't speak about their feelings for fear of a still more painful humiliation. Most of us, of course, do not deliberately set out to embarrass our children. When we do commit this offense, it is usually because we are not thinking or because we are preoccupied with our own feelings.

The use of sarcasm with children is one example. Most sarcastic statements probably are intended to tell the child something and even contribute to his development, but they certainly can be destructive to the child's feelings about self.

We need to be sensitive to a child's reaction to what we say and how we say it. That means that at times we may have to choke off some spontaneous outburst of feeling on our part. Surely the exercise of self-restraint will hurt us less than the lack of it may hurt our children.

To sum up, the ability to feel comfortable about oneself, to feel worthwhile, is an important step in growing up. Before children can like others, they must first be able to like themselves. Children who are appreciated for who they are, who are not constantly being compared unfavorably with others, who are given ample opportunities to decide and to succeed, and who receive attention generally learn to like themselves.

Ronald L. Pitzer
Extension Family Sociologist