Building Your Child’s Self-Esteem
Do you remember what it was like waiting for your parents to read your report card? I remember it not always being a pleasant experience. Especially if I knew there was a low grade on it. I can see it in the eyes of my children on report card day when I get home from work. Their eyes are either twinkling with excitement or downcast with uncertainty. I try not to be too hard on them for low grades. I want them to know that they are loved regardless of their performance. Often I will ask them what would happen if they made all F’s. They now know the answer, “I’d love them anyway.” I would love them anyway; however, their performance is also important for their future.
Everyone has worth and value because everyone was created by God. “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made, your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139:14). In this verse the psalmist recognizes his value and praises God for this fact. We do indeed have worth that is not tied to our accomplishments because of God’s unconditional love for us. This should be the beginning for our self-esteem.
However, our self-esteem is also highly affected by our actions. In this sense our self-esteem is a tough, reality-based business. Contrary to what some teach, self-esteem is not a make-the-kids-feel-good-at-all-cost kind of project. If certain qualities are lacking in one’s life, positive self-esteem cannot be bestowed instantly in a kind, insightful moment, in a weekend workshop, or in a positive summer camp experience. Self-esteem is based on reality, not gimmicks.
There is a story about a fourth-grade teacher—a very nice, well-meaning lady—who was very concerned about fostering self-esteem in her students. One day during geography, she asked the class a question:
“What is the capitol of Egypt?”
One young man in the back of the room waved his hand enthusiastically.
“Johnny?” said the teacher.
“Mississippi.” Johnny replied confidently.
Temporarily taken aback, but not wanting to injure her young student’s developing self-concept, Johnny’s teacher quickly recovered and said, “That’s the correct answer to another question.”
This adult maneuver is an example of a superficial gimmick designed to protect a young boy’s self-esteem. The correct response from the teacher should have been: “Wrong.” The issue here is this: Realistic and positive self-esteem is the by-product of a life well-lived. Luke gave us a glimpse of a child who lived well when he described Jesus’ childhood, “And Jesus grew in wisdom, and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52).
This small glimpse into the life of Jesus shows us that a well-lived life is based on more than one area. Several key areas of a life well lived include:
- Social competence (getting along with others, feeling loved and appreciated)
- Work competence (for kids this largely involves school, but it also involves independent self-management skills)
- Physical competence (physical skills and caring for one’s body)
- Character competence (ability to follow the rules, effort, courage and concern for others).
By and large, therefore, whatever you do as a parent to help your child become competent in these areas is going to improve your child’s self-esteem.
In our book 1-2-3 Magic for Christian Parents, Dr. Phelan and I discuss three steps that help lead to healthy self-esteem in children.
1. The first step involves helping your child learn to control his negative behavior such as whining or arguing. In the book we suggest a “no talking, no emotion” 1-2-3 counting method backed up by consistent consequences. These consequences can be a time-out served in his room or a time-out alternative such as a loss of privileges.
2. The second step involves systematically encouraging positive (Start) behaviors in your child. Start behavior involves learning how to independently manage your life. Kids who know how to get out of the house in the morning, complete their homework, feed the dog and get to bed-on their own- naturally feel better about themselves. Independence makes kids proud.
3. Finally, having a good relationship with your child—and working to strengthen that relationship—is obviously a big part of the social competence element of self-esteem. As your kids get older and older, they will be required to get along with more and more other children as well as with more and more adults. In their relationship with you, your youngsters get their critical first experience with the ins and outs of getting along with somebody else.
So whether it is a report card or a ballgame, be sure and let your child know that you love them regardless of their performance. However, remember that your child’s future self-esteem will be highly affected by their competence. So take time to help develop competence in your child. One day they’ll thank-you for it.
Book excerpt used with permission from 1-2-3 Magic for Christian Parents: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 by Dr. Thomas W. Phelan and Chris Webb