Disciplining for Self Esteem

July 18, 2010 at 7:08 am (Attachment Parenting, Positive Discipline)

Another feature article for The Attached Family magazine:

Disciplining for Self Esteem

by Kelly Bartlett

What if everyone was born with a lifetime supply of the skills required for successful living?  What would those skills be?  Probably not ones like balancing a checkbook or cooking a mean pot roast.  Though those are certainly valuable abilities to have, perhaps the most versatile assets we can possess are skills such as problem solving, sound judgment, interpersonal skills, accountability, and a perception of one’s own significance and capabilities.  In other words: self esteem.  With a strong sense of awareness and confidence in ourselves we are able to overcome obstacles and realize that we are capable of any success.

Though it might be nice, humans are, of course, not born with a lifetime supply of self esteem.  This happens over time, and we as parents can foster its development in our children in the ways we interact with them.  When they are little, our reactions to their inevitable successes are natural and effortless.  We encourage them when they complete “big-kid” tasks.  We cheer, say, “Yay!  Wow!  You did it!” We dole out thousands of hugs, smiles, and even the ever-so-generic, “Good job!”  For this, our toddlers feel grown-up, proud; happy with themselves.  Though as our children grow, encouraging the development of their self esteem becomes a little more involved than smiles, cheers, and pats on the back.  What else can we do to help our growing children realize their potential?

Frame Your Child’s Quirks Positively

In other words, forget about labeling.  This may be difficult, especially when we’re all trying to understand our children and learn who they are.  Being able to define their characteristics makes us better able to parent them.  But even labels that may not seem negative may still cause a child to define himself and increase the likelihood of that behavior (The Successful Child, William Sears).  If a child knows he is referred to as something even as innocuous as a “picky eater”, when presented with a plate of dinner, he may subconsciously think, “I’m a ‘picky eater’ so it’s OK for me to refuse this.  It’s who I am.”  Any label, however seemingly harmless, sends the message to a child that they’ve already been defined and they can’t do anything differently.

Even seemingly positive labels like “smart” or “talented” can have a way of bringing a child down.  When a smart/ talented child encounters a challenge too great; when she is suddenly unsuccessful at something she has been labeled to be good at, rather than working at overcoming the challenge, she may defer to her given label and concede with, “I guess I’m not that smart or talented.”

If children are to grow and develop confidence in themselves, they must be free of labels.  We need to allow them to be who they are without hesitation to abide by their label; to change over the years as they outgrow behaviors and develop new interests and strengths.

Make Mistakes

So often as parents we try to prevent mistakes from occurring with our kids.  We issue warnings, reach out to help, or just do a job ourselves because we don’t want the hassle of cleaning up after a mistake. Mistakes can assume such forms as a spill, a fall, or an ill-thought decision. And they are all valuable and necessary in a child’s developing self-confidence!  How we handle mistakes throughout a child’s growing career can teach them that challenges are either threats to be avoided, or that they can be opportunities to learn and develop strong mastery skills.

A “rescuing” parent does just that; either rescues a child from a problem she has encountered or anticipates a problem and prevents it from happening.  For the sake of our children’s developing self confidence, we do not want to do this.  It may make our job easier for the moment if we complete a task ourselves, rather than give our child the job along with its accompanying opportunity to mess up.  We might also think our children will love us more if we clean up their figurative and literal messes for them, rather than turn the responsibility for repair around on them.  But as Barbara Coloroso, author of Kids Are Worth It, says, “Parenting is neither an efficient profession nor a popularity contest.”

Aside from rescuing our kids from their problems, washing our hands of them—that is, ridding ourselves of any involvement (which may or may not be accompanied by a healthy dose of berating)—is equally unhelpful.  It sends the message that kids are incompetent and incapable, and that we are not there to help them when they make a mistake. Sometimes our children will get into a problem that is over their heads and, with our help, their mistakes will turn into incredible learning opportunities!

We need to be supportive and encouraging of our kids’ mistakes.  We need to see them for what they are; one more chance to boost self confidence by allowing for critical thinking and problem solving.   What we need is not a balance between rescuing and washing our hands, but a third choice all together: focusing on solutions.  When a mistake has been made, is it more important to look for blame, or to figure out how to fix it?  Instead of spouting off about carelessness, immaturity, or inconvenience (which are always the first exasperated thoughts that come to mind), try asking, What are we going to do about it?  What can I do to help?  What are you going to do? What are some options we could try?

Though the steps involved in problem solving are not always fun for kids, the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction in themselves that follows offers a big reward.  Children begin to see problems as challenges to be mastered, not threats to be avoided.  Instead of shrinking away from difficulty, they have confidence that they can successfully tackle any obstacle in their way.


Effective listening is about more than just saying “I’m listening.” To show that we are actively listening to our children and that we love them, we listen for understanding.  Demonstrate that you hear what your child is telling you by repeating back what he is saying, helping him identify feelings, and asking him questions about what he is saying.  It is much more effective at conveying a message of love than simply telling him, “I hear you.  I understand.”  Prove it.

When a child feels heard and understood she feels validated.  She knows she has a voice that matters; that her thoughts and feelings are taken seriously, and that she is important.  And this, of course, is the foundation of self esteem!

No Punishments, No Rewards

Another subtle but important factor affecting the development of children’s self esteem is when parenting gets conditional.  Connecting a child’s behavior (thereby, his sense of self) with extrinsic factors affects his dignity.  Depending on the reward or consequence at hand, it tells a child, “you are only worth this much,” and causes him to view mistakes as negative reflections of himself. (Kids Are Worth It, Barbara Coloroso)

To help our children positively realize who they are, we can move away from the inclusion of the word “if” in our parenting.  If I get a good report from your teacher, we can go to the movies tonight.  If you don’t get your room picked up like I asked, there will be no video games today.  If you start behaving appropriately, you can go to the birthday party tomorrow. The practice of issuing rewards and consequences for certain behaviors sends a child the message that she is acceptable “only if…”

Instead, we can demonstrate the limitlessness of children’s self-worth by opting for encouragement over praise, and concentrating on solutions rather than on blame and punishment.  Encouragement is respectful and it focuses on work and effort.  It recognizes ownership and creates inner direction, whereas statements of praise teach dependence on the evaluation of others; approval junkies.  Consider: You worked hard on that; thank you for your help! (encouragement), versus: I like the way you did that; it is just right! (praise).  When we use encouragement versus praise, we are allowing a child to feel worthwhile without the approval of others.  This is another cornerstone of self esteem.

Stay Connected

In the presence of a trusted adult, kids feel free to be themselves.  They feel comfortable and confident in expressing who they are when they know they will not be judged or ridiculed.  It is important that we give kids as much opportunity to express themselves as possible (through both their language and behavior), and to simply accept them.  We need to shift the focus away from changing the behavior and over to acceptance and connection.  Some ways to stay connected and get to know your child are:

  • Have regular on-one-one time.  For preschoolers, schedule this special time every day.  For school-aged children and teenagers, once a week is recommended.
  • Play “getting to know me” games.  Self Esteem Games, by Barbara Sher has many great games to play as a way to connect during free moments.  Play them during dinner or in the car.  Laugh, have fun, and allow a child to practice expressing herself in a silly, nonjudgmental way.
  • Hold family meetings. During weekly meetings, family members get together and share what’s going on with each other.  Items on the agenda may include discussing the week’s activity schedule, meal planning, or a problem a child is having at school or with friends.  The key to successful family meetings is to brainstorm together and allow everyone to have a voice.  Take all contributions seriously; everyone’s input matters. Parents can read more about the logistics of family meetings in Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen.

Self esteem, like so many other behavioral goals in parenting, doesn’t appear with a snap of the fingers.  It comes from the strength of making empowering decisions.  It comes from making mistakes without the fear of punishment.  It comes from a strong connection to a loving parent.  As parents who are all aiming to foster self esteem in our children, we are very aware of the challenges of this venture.  Parenting is never perfect, but we must find those moments—little opportunities to connect with and encourage our kids—to ensure the development of a strong perception of how they can personally influence their life.  An “I matter!” approach to life becomes one of the most valuable tools for succeeding as a self-confident person in an often-discouraging world.

Kelly is the positive discipline editor for The Attached Family magazine, an API Leader, and a Certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator.  She lives and works in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children.

A few defining moments of self-esteem for my older daughter, Elia, age 5:

Just made a batch of cupcakes ALL by herself:

First time making it all the way to the top of the rock wall:

Using a real serrated knife to cut and squeeze her own orange juice:

Hooked and fought a 10-lb fish (with Dad’s help to bring it all the way in!):


  1. Stephanie Cornais said,

    Great article! The, forget about labeling and taking out the “if”, really hit home to me. My daughter is only 8 month’s old, but already I have given so many labels to her. She is a good eater, but a bad sleeper. She loves the water but doesn’t like to cuddle. I must stop with the labels!

    I have a question about taking out the “if”…what are some examples of what to do instead of saying “if you behave well, we can go to the party tomorrow.”


    • Kelly said,

      Hi Stephanie, I know what you mean about how easy it is to label our kids, even as infants! We’re really just trying to understand them, and to be able to describe them to others in a simple, straightforward way. Yet, sometimes we get so used to articulating the labels we’ve identified that they unintentionally stick. Sometimes for too long.

      As far as the alternatives to using “if”…

      1. There’s no way to rephrase an “if you do this, then you get this” statement. So completely eliminate them. Make it 2 separate statements given at 2 different times: “Please remember to be gentle; hitting hurts.” And (said at a completely different time of day), “Oh, we have a birthday party to go to tomorrow!” Even if a child is going through a hitting phase and is having difficulty controlling himself, as long as you’ve RSVPed and committed to the party, you should go. In positive parenting, one is not conditional on the other.

      2. I’ve found the next closest thing to be a “when” statement. “When your plate is cleared from the table, we will go outside to play.” That is really about an order of events rather than a reward or punishment that is conditional on a child’s behavior. First we do A, then B, then C. We’re not going to do B until we’re all done with A. So when your plate is cleared (A), we can then go outside (B), and then we’ll go to dinner (C).

  2. Janet said,

    Love it! And I love that this is an article about discipline. It certainly does not fit the “common” definition of discipline=punishment. I recently had to fill out a questionaire for Lauren’s preschool teachers and one question was about what methods of discipline we used at home. I had a hard time with that one. I feel like we don’t discipline (We do a lot of teaching, of course…) but that answer (none) would have gone over really well with the teachers I’m sure 😉

    • Kelly said,

      Thanks, Janet! And I thought the same thing…after I wrote it I thought, “Wait, wasn’t this supposed to be an article about positive *discipline*?” And it took me a few re-reads to realize that I had, indeed, covered the best “disciplinary” techniques to help raise children with self esteem. They’re just not as tangible as the word ‘discipline’ suggests.

      I love your answer for what methods you use at home…”none”. Ha! You totally should’ve written that down. I always love opening the door to a discussion on discipline options, and that would’ve started one for sure!

  3. Timmy said,

    What a great article! So many things to think about as Oscar gets older. I love having an outside and informed perspective on parenting, it makes me think so much about how I parent. Thanks Kelly!

    • Kelly said,

      Yes, there is so much to think about…sometimes I wonder if I think too much! 🙂 I just like knowing I’m making conscious and well-informed decisions about how I raise my kids. Of course, you have such awesome parenting instincts already ;), Oscar is a happy boy!

  4. valleygirl said,

    Wow…this was really great. I’ve just recently been reading more on positive discipline and I’d like to think that we have been sort of “in the middle” from day one with all of our kids. HOWEVER, I am really battling with my oldest schoolage child! And quite honestly reading this article hit home in a way that left me thinking “Oh crap, we screwed up, now we have to undo x and x and x.” I know that as parents we can’t spend time blaming ourselves for our mistakes anymore than we would want our children to do so but it was quite a realization and I can’t help but wonder if my straight A girl has major melt down over anything that is the slightest big challenging because of the “smart” labels we have placed on her. Helping her in those moments are quite useless because she becomes overemotional and tends to shut down and block us out. Even our hugs are not welcome. She is SO hard on herself and it pains me and frustrates me to no end. Any practical suggestions to start with that pop in your head? Aside from getting rid of the labels? Even craft projects “stress” her out and she withdraws and often ends up in tears because it’s not “perfect”. We have NEVER expected perfection and have explained till we are blue in the face we only want her best. Her reply is always that her best is not good enough. 😦 How do we break this?????

    • valleygirl said,

      Sorry about all the typos – I clearly did not proofread! LOL Ooops!

      • Kelly said,

        Didn’t even notice! 🙂 I completely understand what you’re saying…I wonder if she could use more opportunities to to work where it doesn’t matter if it’s perfect or not. You know…with school work, many kids want it to be perfect because they’re being evaluated on it…they get some kind of score or smiley face or sticker or letter grade, and thy feel discouraged if they don’t get that, or if they think they won’t get it. I’m wondering if 2 things might help…

        More opportunities where the work is *supposed* to be imperfect. Like abstract art or journaling or other activities in which there is no “right” way to do it. It might take the pressure off her and she can learn to enjoy the *process* of working on something.

        More opportunities where the result of the work brings people happiness. Like building a bird house (because birds certainly don’t care what it looks like, but it’ll be obvious how much they like it) or planting a garden (because friends, neighbors, and food banks love to get homegrown vegetables), or something else where her work will be appreciated no matter its imperfections. And I know *you* appreciate her work, but sometimes it means more when a stranger’s face lights up at what she did. It might help her realize that the happiness her effort created is more enjoyable than the stress brought on by trying to make it perfect.

        These are just the first couple things that came to my mind, but of course, you know your daughter better than anyone! I’m just thinking that if she experiences small opportunities in which she experiences *satisfaction without perfection*, it might help boost confidence and carry over to other areas of her work, like challenging school work. I think no matter what, though, it will definitely take time, so bring forth your all patience and encouraging words! 😉

  5. Friday Link Love: 7.23.10 said,

    […] is a must read parenting article about creating good self-esteem in children by using Positive […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: