Self-Esteem :: Review
"Lord help me to have a high opinion of myself."
Among the many good things parents want for their children, a high regard for self is at or near the top. Parents frequently ask, "What can we do to make our children feel good about themselves?" Concerns are then expressed about children who mope around the house complaining about their inadequacies, being afraid to try new things, and despairing that they have no friends.
To some degree, this is to be expected. Occasionally we all feel unattractive and down on ourselves. But as parents, we need to be extra cautious that we don't inadvertently contribute to our children's sense of low self-esteem by giving it the wrong kind of attention, or by actually saying or doing things that would make a child wonder about his ability and worth.
Though it happened over 50 years ago, an experience during my impressionable days as a boy pressed an indelible image of self into my mind that I am sure will stay with me for as long as I live. In elementary school, my friend Billy and I sang together in school and community events. We both had clear, boy soprano voices which blended well. On some occasions, we sang solo. I enjoyed those opportunities to perform since they were among the few really reinforcing events in my life that bolstered my self-esteem.
During summer vacation between my 4th and 5th grades, my parents took my younger brother, Ed, and me on a vacation to California to visit friends and family. At the home of an aunt and uncle, my aunt asked me if I would sing a song. Though a bit embarrassed to sing for such a small group of family members, I was pleased at being asked and agreed to sing a song from a recent school program at which I had performed. When I finished my aunt was effusive with praise, and I was pleased, to say the least. At the height of my euphoria, my mother said, "Glenn tries hard, but Eddie has a much better voice." WHAM! That was the end of singing for me. Never again did I-even to this day-perform vocally. I was crushed! That light went out forever.
In recalling this, one must not assume that my mother was an insensitive, harsh, careless person. In fact, the very opposite was the case. In life, my mother was my hero. In death, she remains my hero. She was the anchor in my life, and is still a powerful force for stability to me. Perhaps in saying what she did, she was just hoping to share the spotlight with my brother. Who knows. But to a 10-year-old boy, it hurt!
Can you see, now, the point I am wanting to make? Be very, very careful what you say to children that reflect on them personally. Don't even joke about it. Words like, "You're so awkward," or "You'll never amount to anything," or "Won't you ever learn?" are terrible. We can all agree on that. But less obviously offensive words like "She does her best and we' ll just have to be satisfied with that," or "Yes, I'm glad you got all passing grades, but I know you can do better," can be just as deflating. Here's a little exercise for you. Opposite each of the esteem-deflating statements, compose an esteem-building statement.
|You're so awkward.|
|You'll never amount to anything.|
|You did your best and we'll just have to be satisfied|
|I'm glad you got all passing grades, but I know you can do better.|
Too often, we think of self-esteem only in terms of what it causes people to do, we see it only as a "causal variable." For example, "He does poorly in school because he has low self esteem." But remember, self-esteem is shaped, day-by-day, word-by-word. It doesn't become a causal variable until it has been shaped into a causal variable. Never forget that!
Self-esteem is more likely to be a caused behavior than a causal behavior.
Here are four things you can do to help build in your children a healthy self-esteem.
- Do and say things which let your children know that you feel good about yourself. Smile a lot, be happy, laugh; in a word, be of good cheer. At times this might be tough to do. You might have to work at it. You might have to put on a bit of an act and appear bigger than life. But that's okay so long as it is a sincere act. Lord Mountbatten put it well when he said, "If you want to be a leader...you can't go around like a shrinking violet hiding yourself: You've got to put on a bit of an act. It must be sincere, it's no good having a bogus act. You've got to play up any qualities you have and blow them up larger than life." This is good advice for parents since parents are in the most important leadership role of all.
Say and do things to and with your children that show you highly
regard them and their ability. In fact, go out of your way to look for
opportunities to build your children's self-esteem through positive
physical and verbal interactions, as noted frequently throughout this
book. Put little reminders up around the house and in the car to prompt
you to say esteem-building things to your children. Your prompts can be
very subtle and have meaning only to you. For example, put a piece of
furniture, a plant, a picture in an odd, out-of-the-way place. Every
time you see it out of place, it will remind you to put in place a well
chosen word of praise or loving attention. Don't worry that what you
say may not seem to be appreciated. A cold, stormy look on the outside
of a kid can hide a lot of warmth on the inside.
Aversives prompt children to avoid, even escape, their parents.Never! I repeat, never! put kids down, use sarcasm (cute or otherwise), or berate kids. A few years ago a high school boy came to me simply distraught. He told me about one of his teachers who was always calling him dog breath. "He doesn't need to say that. He thinks it's cute, and even though I just shrug it off with a smile, deep down inside it really hurts." I was in the company of a father and his teenage son while the father was telling about some work the boy had done around the house. The father said, "Well, he did a very good job, actually (with a tone in his voice that suggested he was quite amazed at that). Of course, he made a terrible mess. No, really, he didn't make much of a mess at all, only a little mess. You know, what you'd expect from a kid." The boy, a big, strapping, bright, fine-looking fellow, was standing a few feet back of his dad during all of this, and the more the father said, the lower the boy's countenance sunk until at last, with bowed head, sagging shoulders, and an expressionless face, the boy slowly turned and quietly walked away, barely able to lift his feet off the ground.
How much better it would have been had the father said, "Yes, he did a good job." Then, turning to the boy, say, "You're a good worker, Son. An able young man. Thanks a ton," while giving him a hug and a pat on the back. Figure 10.1 should be put up in your home as a constant reminder to never put a child down. One of the happiest parenting-related experiences of my life came to me during a conversation I was having with a fellow who knew one of my daughters. He told me that during a recent visit with her he had jokingly told her something I supposedly said about her that was uncomplimentary. "Instantly," he said, "she grew serious and replied, `My dad didn't say that. My dad would never say anything like that about me.'" And she was absolutely correct. Louise and I never say anything about or to our children or grandchildren that is uncomplimentary. NEVER! Not even in jest. And I suggest to you to abide that same rule.
When children say disparaging, uncomplimentary things about
themselves, acknowledge those feelings with empathy and love, but press
for a solution. Suppose a child says to you, "I can't do anything
right. I'm just no good. I wish I'd die." Say, "I'm sorry you're
feeling down, Son. To me you're priceless. I want to help. Let's talk
about it." During these talks, respond with hope. If a child says he
wants to die, it's because he's looking for reasons to live. If we
react with despair, we simply reinforce the behavior we want to
extinguish. Don't try to convince the child that he shouldn't, or
really doesn't, feel that way, that he is just having a bad day. To the
child these feelings may be as real as life, and if that's the way life
really feels, it just might not be worth it to live. If children are
hurting enough and desperately seeking relief, they will say some
pretty bizarre things to get attention. But be careful that you don't
reinforce the very behavior you want to get rid of. Don't just talk
about problems. Provide help. Regarding why we shouldn't try to talk a
child out of negative feelings of self, consider the following. In this
scenario, ask yourself the question, what is the child really
Figure 10.1 - Creating a Positive Environment
Child: "I don't know what's the matter with me. No one likes me. I lose friends as fast as I make them. I must be ugly as a post." Parent: "Now, now. Don't be so hard on yourself. You're not ugly as a post. You're cute as a button, handsome as can be. For proof, just go look in the mirror." Child: "You know very well I'm ugly. You sure don't see the good looking kids at school without friends!"
Parent: "I never realized you felt like this. It's obvious to me that you are really hurting. Let's talk about it and see if we can find solutions."
- Put failure into perspective. Failure is apart of life, a natural obstacle on the road to success. Several months after he had had surgery on his leg, our oldest son entered a foot race as part of a scout activity. As you might guess, he didn't do very well competitively. In fact, he finished last-distant last. As he finally crossed the finish line, only his scout leader and I were there to greet him. We were as proud of him as though he had won by the margin by which he had lost. As I held him tight and told him how proud I was of him he said, "I did okay, Dad. I finished the race. I didn't quit." To which I replied, "And that's the mark of a real winner." A failure experience became a success experience.
In a great article written by the renowned family counselor and child psychologist John K. Rosemond, entitled "The Three R's of Self-Esteem," published in the January, 1993 issue of United Airlines Hemisphere magazine, he made this important point in an article entitled "Back to the Basics":
Assisting children toward the discovery of true self-esteem requires that parents create family environments that communicate the Three R's of respect, responsibility, and resourcefulness. In the family, parents, not children, should command center stage. Children should have a daily routine of chores for which they are not paid, they should do their own homework, find the majority of their own after-school recreation, and should not be allowed to waste great amounts of time in front of the television sets and video games. A child who is respectful of others will conduct himself with a sensitive regard for other human beings. A child who is responsible will do his best, regardless of the task or the situation. A child who is resourceful will try and try again until success is at hand. Out of these strengths gradually emerges a genuine sense of self-worth and self-respect.
Is that old-fashioned? Absolutely, as in tried-and-true.
No one thing is going to make a child feel that he/she is or isn't of worth. It's cumulative. Building a child's self esteem is not a difficult or a complicated matter. It's one little positive interaction built on another. It's the journey of a thousand smiles taken one smile at a time.
Though I can rightfully be criticized for not going more deeply into this topic, I have chosen the course I've taken because, in reality, no one chapter in any book is going to adequately address the many facets of the subject. I do, however, have three suggestions for parents as they work with children who are questioning their worth. They are self-management skills that children (older children particularly) can learn to use in their own defense, and to build their own self esteem. I say "in their own defense" because not infrequently children are verbally assaulted by other children, parents, teachers, and others in ways that could make anyone question his worth. (For additional reading on this aspect of building self-esteem, I refer you to an article written by Elin McCoy entitled "Bully-Proof your Child," published in the Nov. 1992 issue of Reader's Digest , pages 199-204.)
Here are a few strategies that have been shown to be effective. To work, children must be taught to use them, and they must be practiced. These are no panacea, but they certainly can be a big help, and can keep small problems from becoming large ones.
. As the term implies, private speech is a
conscious talking to oneself; saying esteem-building things,
particularly at times of risk. For example, a teacher says something
harsh or negative to a child. Rather than allow himself to be put down
by this type of thing, the child learns to say something neutralizing
or positive to himself. For example:
"My teacher put me down during class, but later in the hall she smiled at me and said hello. That really made me feel good and I appreciated it."
Note: This keeps such negative, self depreciating thoughts as "my teachers hate me" out of the child's head.
Note: Saying this, the boy is less likely to entertain thoughts of being stupid.
Note: In other words, "maybe one person is down on me but that doesn't mean everyone is."
- Assessing cause and effect . Assessing actual causes helps a person explain in a very specific way why something happened, and helps avoid the tendency to engage in over generalizations that can cast a negative light on oneself. For example:
Rather Than This Being The Cause... This Is The Cause ( very specific ) I failed the test because I am dumb. I failed the test because I didn't study as I should have. Billy didn't invite me to his birthday party because no one likes me. I guess Billy is angry at me so he didn't invite me to his birthday party. I didn't make the ball team because I am clumsy and a terrible ball player. If I expect to make the ball team next year, I'm going to have to practice harder than ever.
- Self-control with self-reinforcement . This involves engaging in alternative behaviors in times of disappointment, times when a person would be likely to get down, depressed, and even feel unfairly put upon, then verbally reinforcing oneself for behaving well. For example:
Situation Self-Control/Self-Reinforcement Response Gets teased at school and made fun of. Smiles, walks away and counts to 10. Find someone else to play with. Later says to self, "Good job. I knew you could do that. You have a lot on the ball. I'm really proud of you." The school bully hits you for no reason and tries to pick a fight. Say, "Oh, hi. How's it going? See ya. I gotta get to class."
Say to yourself, "Boy you were really the tough guy in that situation. What a tiger!"
There is a strong temptation to eat something fattening. Leave the area as quickly as possible, or put the "goodies" out of harms way-in the cupboard, locked up, or whatever. Say to yourself, "That was definitely the right thing for me to do. It might have tasted good, but I'll look and feel better."
Self-Esteem :: Review
Now To Review
Building self esteem is a life-time effort. It must start at home with parents saying and doing self-esteem building things to and with their children: setting reasonable standards for behavior and performance, appropriately acknowledging the accomplishment of those standards, establishing a healthy model of self-esteem (not arrogance!), and practicing good parenting skills.
- The key to developing healthy self-esteem in children is for parents to be positive and proactive in their interactions with their children.
- The self-management skills of private speech, assessing cause and effect, and self-control coupled with self-reinforcement provides children with tools they can use to protect themselves from the inevitable slings and arrows of the world that tend to put us down and get us down on ourselves.