The importance of building self-esteem in our children

We often dismiss the effect our words and behaviors have on our children’s self-esteem.

Parenting (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
One of the most discussed issues in parenting and in therapy overall is how to ensure healthy self-esteem in ourselves and our loved ones. When it comes to our kids, the issue becomes more critical.
Webster’s dictionary defines self-esteem as a feeling of respect for one’s self and abilities. How does one develop a positive view of oneself, and how do we as parents help instill such a positive view? We often dismiss the effect our words and behaviors have on our children’s self-esteem. Yet from the time they are babies, they rely on us to validate their self-worth.
Showing love and affection for our children from a young age allows them to feel “love-worthy”; every act of unconditional love deposits self-worth and self-love into their emotional accounts. They will spend the rest of their lives building on that foundation.
As psychiatrist Thomas Szasz stated: “People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates.” When we help our kids realize their self-worth, we help them create a person who feels worth loving.
So what tools can we use to improve our kids’ self-esteem? For one, catch your kids doing good! Make sure that for every criticism, you express two compliments. Our children need to feel they are generally succeeding in positive behaviors in order to feel good about themselves – and their most important critic is you. When we validate them as good people, we give them the confidence to continue to succeed and do even better, and they believe in themselves.
So notice, acknowledge and compliment! We often make the mistake of trying to validate our kids for their looks, the way they dress, their hair, etc.
We do not want our kids to think this is what matters.
They will not always look good, and do not need to feel this is what defines them for us, for themselves or for anyone else. Excessive concern over body image can lead to eating disorders and worse.
Rather, we should notice them being polite and appreciative of what is done for them, making efforts to do well in school, keeping their rooms clean, taking good care of their clothes and treating us with respect.
We all know that when we are complimented for doing something right, we try to do it more.
Contrary to popular belief, our kids do want to please us. The key is to share the need for change in their behavior in a way that they see the benefit to doing so themselves.
In the words of Kaylan Pickford, “Our choices in life are made according to our sense of our own worth.”
In complimenting our kids, we must be careful to make the compliments credible. We do not want to inflate their ego, causing them to feel above their peers.
We also don’t want them to believe we expect them to be the best, causing them to fear letting us down.
On the other hand, do share your kids’ strengths with others who have contact with them. Help them to see and acknowledge when our children are succeeding.
We can add to their feelings of success by helping them set attainable goals and acknowledging when they achieve them.
When being critical, it is important to separate the person from the behavior. How often have we been so angry at our kids that we begin to name-call – “You’re a slob, you’re lazy, you’re manipulative, etc.”? Our kids may exhibit these behaviors, but so does everyone at some point. We can speak to them about a certain behavior without labeling them as unworthy – not only of our love, but of self-love.
Furthermore, by targeting a specific behavior and making suggestions for change, they know what we expect of them and believe they are capable of making that change. If they are given the message that this is “who they are,” they might give up and just assume that they are incapable of improvement.
Parenting cannot be impulsive. Just as we pre-plan for a journey, we must pre-plan our moves in parenting.
We must be prepared for our kids to make mistakes, and make clear what the consequences are beforehand – not just for their benefit, but for our own as well. How would we feel if we erred and were instantly labeled irresponsible, manipulative, etc.? Even when we know the label is not true, it sinks in and we can begin to doubt ourselves.
This is all the more true in the case of our kids.
It is human nature to become oversensitive to traits that we dislike in ourselves when we see them manifest in our children. This is where pre-planning becomes so valuable; it keeps us from overreacting and reacting for the wrong reasons. When we can accept our imperfect selves, we show our kids that they too are valuable without needing to be perfect.
In Judaism, we learn about the importance of respecting our parents. Why the emphasis on respect rather than love? As we all know, we don’t always feel love for our parents, but we always need to act toward them with respect – as they are our primary higher power.
The commandment teaches us to accept that we are not in total control of our lives, and there are those above us who know better than we do what is best for us. It helps us establish positive relationships with authority figures in our lives, and to learn from others.
The acceptance of a higher power – whether it be religious in nature, or a belief in some kind of cosmic balance – is essential to the development of a sense of moral responsibility, and has proven instrumental in the treatment of addictive behaviors. Before our kids make choices, we want them to consider what we would think about them, so that as adults they will continue to consult what they have chosen for their own moral compasses – be it God, karma or a human role model.
Through us, they learn to trust and love the world. That is a big responsibility – but one we are all capable of handling.
By understanding that our kids need much more positive than negative feedback to succeed, we can help instill in them a sense of self-esteem. By feeling good about themselves, they are much more likely to succeed in life. It doesn’t take a lot of work, and the end result is well worth it.
In the end, our kids do far more right than wrong.
It’s up to us to notice and reinforce those things about them that we truly love! As Stephen Richards wrote in his book Boost Your Self-Esteem, “A person today who seems to have a great sense of self-esteem has his or her childhood days to thank for it.” It’s never too late to start confirming to our kids that they are truly unique and worth loving.
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The writer counsels teens, young adults and parents in Jerusalem, and is the founder of the Sobar Music Center Project FB Sobarjerusalem.;