Updated: Dec 28, 2018
When I became a mom, my friends recommended I join a local FaceBook parenting group. The group has been extremely helpful in finding used baby items in addition to learning how to identify unknown baby rashes and where to find soy-free baby formula. It was a post on this page though that prompted me to seek out the parenting education certification through the Positive Discipline Association.
A mother shared that her 5 year old daughter was struggling with low-esteem and she was seeking the group’s input on how to boost her self-confidence. Regrettably, I did not respond to the post; however, I did read the recommendations from several of the concerned members in the group. One mom recommended posting positive affirmations on her wall and reading them to her each morning, such as “you’re smart!” and “you’re strong!” This comment appeared to receive the most number of “likes.” The additional suggestions and comments were similar. And while, it is nice to receive a compliment every once in awhile, this is not how self-esteem is developed and in fact, hearing how smart you are every morning when you don’t “feel smart” can actually make a child or adult feel worse. There is no doubt, this mom and all the other moms who responded, had the child's best interest in mind -- However, the wrong message was being delivered on how self-esteem is developed.
First, increasing a child’s self-esteem does not happen in a vacuum. However, in order to help a child improve how they feel about themselves, the parent, caregiver, or teacher needs to understand how self-esteem is developed. One of the foundations of Positive Discipline (PD) is helping children feel capable and feel as though they belong. It is through these acts of failure, accomplishment, and belonging that a child’s self-esteem will grow. In PD, we see mistakes and failures as “opportunities for learning.”
Here are a few tips to help improve self-esteem in children…
Teach your child new things
Any time a child masters a new skill is an opportunity to boost self-esteem. Recently, my 2.5 year old daughter decided that she is going to put on her sneakers, “all by herself!” “No, Momma, I do!” is a common phrase in our house right now. However, following this new quest for independence, I found myself picking her up from daycare wearing “two left feet.” After several days of this, I realized that I had not properly taught my daughter how to put her shoes on correctly. That night, we had a long talk and lesson on how to put on her sneakers. I sat with her for what seemed like an eternity showing her where the Nike Swoosh is supposed to be. While some mornings, I feel strapped for time and it would be easier to “just do it” myself, the look of pride this kid has when she puts her shoes on by herself, is something that makes these whirlwind of mornings all worth it.
Tip: When teaching your own kids new things, be sure to help them at first and give them the opportunity to learn and try. It is important to create challenges that are not “too easy” or “too hard.”
Use praise with caution
Of course, as parents it is natural to want to praise your child when they have done something that makes us proud. However, “overpraising” can lead children to always seek external compliments from their parents and teachers in order to validate they have done a “good job.” That said, this is easier said than done. “Good job” is a phrase that rolls off my tongue all too easily. I recently had an “aha” moment when my daughter successfully solved a puzzle and she looked at me and said, “Emmy did a good job?” I begrudgingly gave her what she was looking for in that moment but realized I needed to rethink my use of praise. I am now making a conscious effort to focus on effort, rather than the outcome of solving the puzzle. So, in this situation, I might say instead, “Wow, you worked really hard to solve this puzzle.”
Tip: Focus on effort and avoid praising results or qualities, such as winning the race or being smart.
Role model hard work and a positive attitude
I think many of us have heard the saying from our parents “do as I say, and not as I do?” I love my mom, but there was not a day that went by when I was growing up that I did not hear her say the word, “shit!” It was typically used while driving, never directed towards anyone, and usually under her breath when trying to accomplish a task. But if I were to even utter this word… I was in big trouble. So here, I am, in my late 30s and I swear like a Sailor. My mom is one of the kindest and generous people I know and I have gained many of her great qualities but her mouth is definitely one of them. So, remember that our children are always watching and they are modeling our actions.
Tip: Model the kind of human you want them to be.
Use kind words and avoid name calling
Imagine, a child does not clean their room and they hear from their parents, “you’re a slob” or “you’re so lazy.” How do you think your child feels after hearing these words? Do you think it would motivate them to clean their room? Most kids, when they hear over and over again that they are lazy or a slob, begin to internalize these messages and begin to believe these comments to be true about themselves. Instead, focus on teaching the child how to clean their room and what is expected next time.
Tip: Have reasonable expectations of your children. And while this article, does not speak specifically about this topic, it does provide a better understanding concerning age appropriate chores for children: https://www.greenchildmagazine.com/age-appropriate-chores-kids/
Focus on strengths
If your child loves music and hates baseball, sign your child up for guitar lessons and skip dragging them to baseball tryouts. Pay attention to what your child likes and what they do well. Provide them with opportunities to develop the things they are good at rather than focusing on weaknesses.
Tip: Let go of your own expectations and accept your child for who they are.
Let kids help and give
Self-esteem grows when kids contribute to a greater good, when they feel as though they have a purpose, and feel as though they belong. I remember being in high school and seeing friends that I had grown-up with start veering to drugs and partying. These were not the kids who were involved in sports, theatre, or band. Ultimately, they were searching for that feeling of belonging. We, as parents can start fostering this at a young age. Again, keeping in mind, age appropriateness, you can start my establishing responsibilities in your home. As soon as my daughter was able to start walking, we taught her how to feed our dog. Because she struggled with walking and carrying the dog bowl at the same time, she used her motorcycle scooter to hold the dog bowl and would whip around the house, with dog food flying everywhere. Yes, we had to assist her at first but now she is an old pro and can do it virtually on her own.
Tip: Defer again to the article above and start implementing responsibilities in your own home but remember to allow for proper teaching. Consider family volunteer outings to a local food pantry or an animal shelter, keeping in mind age appropriateness. Lastly, sign your child up for a group activity – and remember, it does not need to be a sport, it could be a music class, an art class, or a youth group; however, providing that opportunity for your child to connect with others around a common goal is important in fostering that sense of belonging.
For more information on this topic, visit the Positive Discipline website at: https://www.positivediscipline.com/articles/you-can%E2%80%99t-give-your-children-self-esteem