You Can’t Give Your Children Self-Esteem

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Many parents say, “I want to give my children self-esteem.” However, you can’t “give” self-esteem to any one. Self-esteem is personally developed from within. Even that is not entirely true. Have you ever noticed how fleeting is self-esteem? One minute you feel really great about yourself. Then someone criticizes you or you make a mistake and criticize yourself. Suddenly your self-esteem is in the pits.

What children (and adults) really need is the ability to handle the ups and downs of life. They need to know how to “recover” their self-esteem when it gets trampled. So, it is more accurate to help children develop self-esteem and resiliency, than to try to “give” it to them.

Self-esteem, or the lack thereof, is developed through life experiences and the “decisions” children make about themselves in response to their experiences. When parents try to give their children self-esteem through praise, they teach their children to value the opinions of others. Children might decide, “I’m good only if someone else tells me I am, and, on the other hand, if someone tells me I’m bad, it must be true.”

Many mistakes are made in the name of love. When parents do too much for children, they are likely to decide, “I’m not capable. Love means getting others to take care of me.” When parents rescue and over-protect their children they may decide, “I can’t handle disappointment or conflict.”

Children will have self-esteem and/or resiliency when they develop healthy beliefs and skills. Self-esteem is founded on such beliefs as, “I’m capable. I belong. I have power in my life. I can handle disappointment. Mistakes are opportunities to learn.” They will have greater self-esteem and resiliency when they have skills and know, “I can solve problems. I can recover from mistakes. My thoughts and feelings are respected. I know how to think about the consequences of my choices. I know how to be respectful to myself and others.”

Parents can help their children develop self-esteem when they provide many opportunities for children to develop these beliefs and skills. Many Positive Discipline books have been written on how to accomplish this, but I will give one example:

Parents make a huge mistake when they talk (lecture too much). I often hear the complaint, “Why doesn’t my child listen to me.” I always want to say, “Because you don’t give her an example of how to listen.”

Most parents “tell” their children what happened, what caused it to happen, how they should feel about it, and what they should do about it. Lecture, lecture, lecture. No listening, no exploring, no teaching children how to think. This invites children to feel blame, shame, and pain – not self-esteem. Learn proven, effective Positive Discipline strategies — even if you’re on the go! Listen to our free podcast series on your iPod or MP3 player while jogging, driving to work… anytime!
It would be so much more effective to ask curiosity questions – and then to listen:

  • What happened?
  • What were you trying to accomplish?
  • How are you feeling about what happened?
  • I’ll bet you learned a lot from this. How could you use what you learned in the future?
  • That ideas do you have to solve this problem?

This invites children to “explore” (think through) the consequences of their choices. When parents truly listen to their responses, children feel valued and respected. When they are given the opportunity to wonder about what they learned and how they can solve the problem, they are practicing thinking skills and problem-solving skills – which will helps them feel very capable.

This is what self-esteem is all about.