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.
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.
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!):