Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Art of Building Self-Esteem

Parents build self-esteem in their children by affirming who they are and what they’ve achieved.   Hollow praise does not build self-esteem, and neither does an unrecognized achievement. If we woke up every morning and told each of our kids, “Wow, you are the most amazing child!  You are just wonderful!” they would turn into conceited praise junkies, but wouldn’t truly have strong self-esteem, because we wouldn’t be giving them specific affirmation, just vague feel-good flattery.  On the other side, if we were critical of every achievement, always pointing out how they could have done better, or where they should have improved, they would never have a positive self-image or confidence in their abilities.  In order to build self-esteem, you have to affirm an actual achievement, no matter how small it was.

The first time our kids made the bed by themselves, they looked terrible; lumpy, with the sheets showing and the covers all skewed.  We told them, “You made the bed all by yourself.  I’m proud of you for making your bed.”  Instead of criticizing their work, or re-doing it to our adult standards, we affirmed them for making the bed themselves.  Then the next day when it was time to make their bed, they weren’t thinking, “I’m not sure if I can make the bed good enough,” they were thinking, “I made my bed by myself yesterday.  I think I can do it again today.”  They had high self-confidence about making beds.  Their self-esteem had grown, and in a few days they would be ready for more bed-making instruction, along with a new affirmation for their increased skill level.

We complimented our children on small achievements, and celebrated with them on large achievements.  We kept our eyes open for each new athletic skill, song learned, school project completed, or social skill practiced, and then complimented them on their successes.  And when they failed, as they often did, we affirmed them for trying, because it takes courage to try new things.  Our daughter has always been tall for her age, finally growing to just under six feet tall as a pre-teen.  So when she expressed interest in gymnastics, we signed her up, and took her to practices, where she towered head-and-shoulders above the other girls her age.  She worked hard at it for months, but her constantly growing arms and legs kept her from having the coordination and strength to be successful.  Even though she failed to become a gymnast, we still see her attempt at gymnastics as a positive experience.  Since we affirmed her adventurous spirit, she went on to try many other athletic options, with varying success, and she now has the self-confidence to try new sports that appeal to her, without fear of failure.

We also built our children’s self-images by affirming them when they made good choices, especially choices that lead to emotional or moral victories.  When our children demonstrated good character qualities, we were quick to affirm them.  If they were kind, or generous, or patient, we would compliment them on their achievement.  After they shared a toy with a visitor, we’d tell them, “That was kind of you to share.  You are a generous boy to share your toys with others.”  By affirming character qualities, we gave our children a self-esteem that went outside of skills or performance.  We gave them a sense of self-worth that was based on who they were, not just what they could do.  While affirming a child’s skills builds confidence, it can also lead to a feeling of conditional love, where the child only feels loved by the parent if they continue to gain new skills.  By affirming their growth of character, our children gained a sense of being loved unconditionally, because they were affirmed for who they’d become, not just what they’d accomplished.  For this reason, we try to affirm the character demonstrated as well as the skill when a new goal is achieved, saying, “I’m proud to see the hard work and sacrifice you’ve put in to become a better piano player, because you played with very few mistakes at your recital.”

So, how does a parent intentionally build self-esteem in their child?  By setting small, achievable goals, and affirming or celebrating the achievement of those goals.  These goals should be for their physical, musical, mental, emotional, and character development, and should be shared with the child, so they know they are working toward something, and can enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.  For example, you teach and affirm sports to small children by setting goals to kick a ball, then throw it, then catch it, then catch it a number of times in a row, then use it to score.  Each of these activities should be a separate goal, with a mini-celebration when the child achieves them. 

During puberty, most kids will experience a crisis in self-esteem, and will need a different kind of support from what they needed in grade school.  For the first time in their lives, they will hit brick walls, and they will also start experimenting with new personalities and identities.  As competition increases, they learn the cold hard truth that no matter how hard they try, they’ll never have the raw talent to be the professional athlete, musician, or scholar they dreamed of being in grade school.  They compare themselves to others around them, including successful siblings, and get the feeling that, “I’m not good at anything.” When they realize that they either can’t be who they wanted to be, or don’t want to be who they are now, they start experimenting with new personality traits and identities.  In all this hormonal confusion and uncertainty, they’re trying to build their self-esteem in new areas, and have a deep need for affirmation.  They need to know that their parents love them and accept them, even if they dress funny and act differently.  If their parents are critical of these experimental changes, but their friends affirm their experimentation, they will continue to drift toward their friend’s influence, and become more open to experimentation with sex, drugs, stealing, or vandalism.  Because of these radical changes, some parents of pre-teens become overwhelmed and abandon their previous efforts to build self-esteem in their children.  However, at this age, they need very intentional development of their self-worth from their parents to survive their self-identity crisis successfully.