4.2 Self-Esteem Tools (1)
Some parenting resources say self-esteem is overrated; they are confusing self-image and ego-esteem with self-esteem. Most credible parenting resources talk about the importance of self-esteem. Few, however, offer clear, specific guidelines for how parents can think, talk, and act, without accidentally praising, pressuring, or discouraging children. Here are some specific tools and suggestions to help us meet our goal of building self-esteem in ourselves and our children.
People can use praise as a reward or to control others. Praise sends the message, “If you do something I consider ‘good,’ I will reward you by showing you love, recognizing you, and valuing you.” While people don’t actually say these words, their attitude implies this hidden message.
When we use love to manipulate, our children think we love them or they are lovable only if they are “good.” Children are human beings, however, and occasionally make mistakes and behave unacceptably. A more encouraging attitude is to genuinely accept children as they are, with all their imperfections, even if we don’t approve of their choices. Later, we can teach them the skills they need to improve.
Unconditional love is possibly the most important factor in feeling a sense of self-worth. It says, both verbally and nonverbally, “You are lovable. You may be different from me, but I respect you simply because you are worthy of respect. Whatever you accomplish or whatever you do, I will still love you.” When people receive unconditional love, they think “If someone can love me even when I make mistakes, I can more easily love myself. Since I love myself, I want to do my best.” Receiving unconditional love brings a deep sense of security and reassurance that a few mistakes cannot erase.
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Consider God’s example of unconditional love. Imagine if God judged and loved us as conditionally as we do others. Would any of us ever be deserving of His love? No matter how hard we tried, we’d probably feel discouraged. Fortunately, God loves us despite our imperfections and mistakes. God supports us but does not rescue us from our mistakes. God is an eternal presence that says, “I’m here and I love you. I won’t force you to grow and change, but I will provide guidelines and examples and be here to guide and encourage you when you are ready.” We can follow God’s example by looking beyond human flaws to the eternal beings inside, who are constantly growing. All people have positive special qualities, though these qualities are sometimes hidden. Inside, people are usually flowers, not weeds. They may be wilted, but they will thrive, if given the warmth of unconditional love to nurture their growth. Only in a safe environment can they learn from their mistakes and begin to see their own potential.
NOTICE THE CHILD’S SPECIAL, UNIQUE QUALITIES
We can show our children, through words and actions, that we love them just because they are and no other reason. This can be difficult if we don’t like a child’s personality or behavior. We can love someone even if we don’t always agree with or like the person. It’s difficult, but we grow when we love unconditionally and let go of our unrealistic expectations to change others.
When our children ask us “Who do you love more?” they really want reassurance that we love each of them specially. We can list the qualities that make that child special to us. If one child’s personality is more compatible with ours, we need to be careful not to show favoritism. Instead, we can focus on each child’s special, positive traits.
AVOID THE FAIRNESS TRAP
Trying to always be fair or give equally is an easy trap to fall into. Many parents do this when purchasing items, serving food, or giving time. Being fair or equal develops a score-keeping attitude. Children learn to measure their worth by comparing their treatment to that of others. Children really appreciate our recognizing and meeting their special needs, even if we occasionally treat them unequally.
For example, if your son needs a jacket and his sister complains, don’t feel you have to buy her a jacket or spend the same amount of money on her. Let her know that her brother needs a jacket today and when she needs something, you will provide for her, too. Don’t worry about spending the same exact amount of money on gifts or adding junk to one child’s loot just to even the score. Base gifts on the child’s individual needs or interests and stay within a general budget.
Instead of measuring amounts of food, give children as much as they are hungry for. Reassure them that if they want more, they can have more. There are two other options: Let children serve themselves, understanding that they must eat what they take. Or have one child serve, such as cutting pieces of cake, and let the other child pick first. The cutter will be sure to make the pieces equal, since the chooser is sure to pick the larger piece!
Instead of interrupting time with one child just because we haven’t spent an equal amount of time with other children, remind them that we will spend time with them, too. Base the amount of time on individual needs that might be quite different, but equally important. For example, it might require more time to review spelling words with one child than to play a game or read a book. Avoid giving time and attention to children only when they ask for it, either verbally or through their actions. If there is one high-need child, be careful to also spend time with the low-need child. Our efforts can go a long way in preventing low-need children from believing they have to be sick or misbehaving to get our attention.
It can be difficult, for both parents and children, to change beliefs about fairness and equality. If children are conditioned to keep score, they may question a parent’s new approach—for a while. Stick with it and help each child feel special and important.
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A Personal Story. When I was growing up, we had two rocking chairs in a little nook of our dining room. When two people wanted to talk about a problem or share the events of the day, they’d sit in this conversation area with a cup of anything and relax. I viewed this area as the heart-to-heart corner, and each chair was half a heart. When we sat in those chairs together, they formed one heart and left us with a warm, glowing feeling. Many times, I said, “Mom, if you ever get tired of these chairs and I have my own place to live, let me buy them from you.”
Recently, when she was preparing to move to a new home, she said she had decided to give my brother and me one rocker each. To my mom, the chairs were just pieces of furniture and she wanted to treat us equally. I was heartbroken—not because I wasn’t going to get the set, but because the set, the heart, might be split.
I told her that as much as I loved and wanted those chairs, I’d prefer she give my brother both of them than split them for the sake of fairness. We talked about the hurt feelings that can result from treatment that is “equal, but less.” She said that when we were young, parents were told to make every effort to be equal and fair. I dropped the issue and told her I’d respect whatever decision she made. She chose to give me the chairs and we now have a heart-to-heart nook in front of our fireplace.
MAKE TIME FOR FUN
Spend daily one-on-one time with each child. Make sure the time is positive and enjoyable. (No lectures or discussions about Parent problems.) Offer encouragement. Be there to listen to their troubles, joys, and detailed stories. Get to know and understand each child better. Laugh together and have fun simply sharing their company.
Schedule “dates” with each child. If other children seem jealous, remind them when their date is planned. Alternate parent-child combinations so each child can count on some special time to be alone with Mom or Dad. Single parents can hire a sitter, trade sitting with a friend, or schedule a date when the other child is participating in another activity. We do not have to spend money to spend time with our children. Here are just a few examples of activities we can share. Ask your child for more suggestions.
DON’T USE LOVE AS A REWARD
“Positive and negative reinforcement” is a practice professionals have promoted over the past few decades. This theory teaches children to behave the way adults want them to, to get positive reinforcements, such as praise, rewards, love, and approval. (Chapter 5, “Cooperation Toolset,” offers alternatives to rewards as well as guidelines for using behavior charts.) If children misbehave, the adults give negative reinforcement, such as withholding praise, love, and approval or applying punishment.
It’s easy to encourage children who are behaving well. But when they disappoint, embarrass, or disobey us, we often say things like “Go to your room. I don’t want to be around you if you can’t behave,” or “Nobody will like you if you behave like that.” If we withdraw our love when children are too difficult, they learn we won’t stick with them when times get tough. It is during rough times that children most need encouragement. Our attitude and tone of voice can say, “While I am frustrated or disapprove of something you did, I still love you.”
Like any of the prevention tools, encouragement is useful any time. When people are frustrated with themselves, we can send the message “I believe in you and love you no matter what.” This message is different from “I know you can do better.” The latter implies “You didn’t do well enough” and is discouraging. It is also different from “whatever you do is okay,” which says that we agree with the
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person’s choice. We don’t have to agree with children’s feelings or perceptions to understand and accept them. We may need to set limits on how they express those emotions, but we allow the emotions themselves. (Chapters 7 and 8, the Child Problem Toolbox, have more information about responding to negative emotions.)
Most importantly, give encouragement and show love for no apparent reason. An unexpected hug or “I love you,” a pat on the back, a back rub while sitting together or standing in line, or a smile from across the room express love and a sense of appreciation. Such physical touches can cure depression, reduce stress, and replenish energy. In basic psychology, students learn about an experiment in which researchers raised three baby monkeys with three different “mothers”: a real mother monkey, a monkey-shaped object covered with fur, and a plain wire monkey-shaped object. The baby with the real mother monkey thrived, grew, and bonded. The monkey with the fur-covered object was very insecure and clung to it. The baby monkey with the wire object died. It is common knowledge among brain researchers that physical, emotional, and intellectual stimulation during the first three years of life are critical, because it stimulates brain growth and development. Neglected children, who have not been regularly held and talked to, have less brain matter than children who receive this stimulation. In severe cases, neglected children’s brains actually shrunk. The first three years set the stage for the child’s personality, emotional bonding or attachment, and ability to learn.
Focus on Self-Motivation, Not People-Pleasing
Many parents were raised with the belief that children should want to please their parents and that this desire is an important motivator. We act on this belief when we make statements such as, “I’m so proud of you,” “You make me happy when you get good grades,” or “Your teacher said you’re a good speller.” Most parents see nothing wrong with children trying to please others, especially if they are trying to please the parents. But let’s look at the long-term effects:
- Praise creates “praise junkies” because it’s addictive. Over time, some children do things just for the praise and recognition they get, rather than the value of the act or the good feelings they get. They come to expect praise and appreciation for everything they do. If they don’t get praise, they question their worth and whether they did a good job. Others may feel they have no reason to cooperate if they won’t get praise or a reward. They think “What’s in it for me? If nobody notices what I do, why should I bother?” While these children may behave well, their motivation is to seek approval from others.
- Praise promotes unhealthy pride. Praise often shifts the focus from the pride or pleasure children feel in their accomplishments to pleasing someone else. Saying “I’m so proud of you” may be misinterpreted by children in several ways: “You make me look good,” “Your job is to make me happy,” or “You please me by doing what I want.” While children may be glad they pleased someone else, pleasing others deflates what they feel. Instead, use words that focus on how children feel. “I bet it feels great to get a good grade after putting such hard work into it” or “You’ve really come a long way! It’s exciting to see you do that on your own.”
A Graduate’s Story. It took my son, Mark, age 4, many months to learn how to swim. He’d hesitate for nearly 5 minutes before he jumped in the water and took 2 weeks to get his face wet. Months later, when he swam across the pool all by himself, stroking and breathing correctly, I was thrilled! I waited for him at the pool’s ladder, ready to give him a hug. As he rose out of the water, he had the biggest grin of satisfaction on his face. I said, “Oh Mark,
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I’m so proud of you!” He immediately stopped smiling and looked disappointed, as though I’d taken away his hard-earned accomplishment! Until that moment, I didn’t understand (or believe) why those words were so discouraging. It’s really important to Mark to do things on his own and he often resists doing things just to please me. While I’m often proud of Mark’s accomplishments, I am careful to focus on his feelings about what he did.
Children need to learn how to handle discouragement well. We want our children to say to themselves, “Maybe I didn’t do as well as I hoped I would, but I know I did my best and improved. If I keep trying, I will eventually get it.” Our children will say these things to themselves, if we focus on the value of their deeds, rather than whom they pleased.
Healthy pride is an inner sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that we’ve done our best.
- Praise can bring on resistance. Praise can be manipulative and controlling, as in “You’re a big boy now. You should be able to go on the potty by yourself!” When some children catch on to their parent’s hidden motive, they refuse to cooperate, viewing it as giving in. Instead of feeling more motivated, they feel resistant and resentful.
- Praise increases the risk that children will follow negative peer pressure. When children try to please us, their parents, we usually don’t mind. As children approach their teen years, however, they give greater value to what their friends think. This is a healthy and necessary part of becoming an adult. Children who make decisions to please others are more likely to try pleasing their peers by going along with the crowd. We want our children to resist negative peer pressure. We hope our children will have the courage to say “I don’t care if you think I’m not cool or won’t be my friend, I’m not going to do that!”
If we want to avoid these pitfalls and develop self-motivation in our children and others, there are several things we can do.
ASK THE CHILD’S OPINION
Encouraging statements use words that focus on children’s opinions or feelings about their efforts, instead of relying on others’ approval. When children think their ideas are important and they have something to contribute, they feel useful and valued. Ask questions such as “What do you think?” or make comments like “I can tell you’re pleased with it.” These statements tell children that their opinions are important and they are capable of judging their own work. If we value their opinions and skills, they are more willing to trust their own judgment and abilities.
A Personal Story. When I was a teen and struggling with a decision, I would sometimes ask my parents what I should do. They would first ask me what I thought and listen to my ideas. They might offer advice, if I asked for it, and end by saying, “Well, I know you have a good head on your shoulders. I trust your judgment. I know you’ll work it out.” I would think to myself, “If they think I have good judgment, they must see something I don’t see. If they see it, it must be there! If they trust my judgment, then so can I.” When faced with tough decisions, especially as a teen, I always tried a little harder to use that “good head on my shoulders.” It saved me from many mistakes and I learned to trust myself, my opinions, and my inner voice.
When children ask, “Did I do a good job?” first ask, “What do you think?” Or “Tell me what you like about it.” If children are persistent in wanting your opinion simply describe what you like. “Well, I think _______, but you can decide for yourself.”
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There will always be events or behaviors that we have little or no control over. We learned in Chapter 2, “Foundation-Building Toolset,” that our beliefs and interpretations of these events greatly affect our response. We can view situations negatively or positively—the choice is ours. It’s like looking at our cup as half full, instead of half empty.
What we see (and look at) is what we get. If we spend 75 percent of our time and energy noticing negative behavior, that will soon be all we see. If this is the only behavior we comment on, children begin to see themselves as bad people. On the other hand, if we spend our time and energy looking for and pointing out positive behavior, we begin seeing more of it. This does not mean we do nothing about negative behavior; we just make an extra effort to notice positive behavior. As we point out the positive and choose our reaction to the negative, children see themselves more positively. Feeling encouraged, they try harder to avoid mistakes and learn from those they can’t avoid. They feel like worthwhile people who occasionally make mistakes.
It usually takes more time and effort to look for positive behavior than to notice negative behavior. When all is going well, we don’t want to rock the boat or distract children from their good behavior— so we say nothing. We need to make a conscious effort to pay more attention to positive behaviors and choose how we interpret negative behaviors. Here are some suggestions:
FOCUS ON WHAT IS RIGHT
Always point out what children do right, even if part of what they did was “wrong.” Consider carefully whether the negative is important enough to even comment on. Often, when we simply notice the positive and ignore the negative, the negative disappears. If the negative is too difficult to ignore, downplay it, focusing mostly on the positive. For example, if your daughter is chattering away in church as she draws a picture, say “You’re having fun and keeping yourself busy. Just remember to whisper.”
A Graduate’s Story. Since I learned about encouragement, I have been trying to focus on the positive with my son. His teacher, however, grades papers by putting how many points he missed. Instead of seeing a 95% grade, he sees –5. He gets really upset, can only focus on his mistakes, and is becoming more discouraged. I have tried pointing out what he did right and even re-marked papers in more positive ways. Finally, I talked to the teacher. I pointed out how discouraged my son feels when his mistakes are pointed out, without giving him credit for all he did right. I explained what I do to be more encouraging and how I marked his papers with a positive grade. She didn’t realize such a small thing was making such a negative impact. She changed her grading and my son immediately changed his attitude. He’s enjoying school again and isn’t being so hard on himself for his mistakes.
SEND POSITIVE MESSAGES TO CHILDREN
Even when children are doing nothing in particular, positive or negative, send positive thoughts their way or give an unexpected positive stroke. Notes of encouragement are very powerful. If children save the letter or note, they can refer to it anytime they want to remind themselves of their good qualities. We can use special cards, sticky notes, or stickers. We can leave them in lunch boxes, on a mirror, next to phone messages, on the refrigerator with a magnet, or on bed pillows. If we use the tips and tools from this toolset, we can create special reminders of how much we love them and how special they are to us.
RECOGNIZE WHAT CHILDREN DO WELL
We can show interest in areas that our children are interested in, even if these interests aren’t important to us. If our children have a special skill or talent, we can find ways to let them help the family and ask for their opinions and advice.
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DESCRIBE HOW CHILDREN’S EFFORTS HELP OTHERS
We need to give children responsibilities that are age-appropriate and build on their strengths. When children are helpful, avoid thanking them for pleasing you (their job is not to make us happy) and point out how it helped you, the family, or others.
When children put forth effort and think they’ve failed in spite of their efforts, they feel discouraged. Acknowledge any effort children make, even if they or their efforts aren’t totally successful.
A Personal Story. When I was about 13, I decided to bake biscuits for my parents while they were at a meeting. The recipe called for cream of tartar, but I couldn’t find any ingredient by that name. I thought, “Here’s some tartar sauce! Maybe they make it by adding water to cream of tartar. If I use this and less water, it might be a good substitute.”
When my parents came home, they were pleasantly surprised that I took the initiative to cook something for them. Then they tasted my creation. They controlled their facial expressions as they tried to swallow their first bite. (I’m impressed they could do it!) Without a hint of disappointment or disapproval my mother politely asked me “What recipe did you use?” I told them the problem and my logical substitution. My mom put her arm around my shoulder and showed me the cream of tartar in the cabinet.
She said, “I can see how you thought tartar sauce might work. Have you tasted the biscuits to see if your theory worked?” “Why no!” I proudly stated with a smile, “I wanted you to be the first to taste them.” “Here,” she said, “try one.” It was awful! I spit it out immediately and threw the remaining biscuits in the trash. While I was embarrassed by my mistake, I was more impressed that my parents appreciated the thought behind my gift and handled my mistake so tactfully.
By showing children we believe in them, they picture themselves having a quality and naturally develop more of that quality. We can point out times when we’ve seen our children handle a situation well, even if only part of their decision was responsible. For example, “I can see you regret going to that party, but you showed good judgment by leaving when those kids started trouble.”
Parents can give praise only after children complete a task and only for the part that was successful. We can give encouragement, however, at each step of the process, with or without any sign of improvement.
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Sometimes, the absence of negative behavior is the very behavior we want to notice. Don’t hesitate to comment at these times.
A Parenting Class Discussion. A foster mother and her teenage daughter took my Parents and Teens—Together class. I asked what positive behaviors the parents had noticed that week. The mother said she hadn’t noticed her daughter behaving positively. The daughter said, “But we haven’t argued in three weeks!” The mother acknowledges this was true. The daughter’s eyes welled up with tears as she added, “You have no idea how hard I’ve been trying to avoid arguments.” I commented that positive behavior isn’t always obvious. Sometimes the absence of negative behavior is a sign of effort and improvement. When we don’t notice this positive behavior, children feel more discouraged. The daughter nodded. The mother looked surprised and then got an “Aha!” look on her face. “I never thought about it that way before,” she said. She put her arm around her daughter and said “Thanks for trying so hard.” The foster daughter relaxed as tears ran down her face. “Thanks for noticing,” she said.
AVOID REMINDING CHILDREN OF PAST MISTAKES OR WEAKNESSES
If we give encouragement, but add a negative comment, it cancels the positive effect. Focus on the child’s strength, without mentioning past failures:
AVOID “CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM”
Constructive criticism is a contradictory term— constructive means to build up; criticism tears down. Parents often think if they point out mistakes, children will want to improve. This approach is rarely effective. As soon as people hear, “You did a good job but…” they prepare to defend themselves against the criticism that will cancel out the positive. Instead, focus on what the child is doing well and decide when and how it would be best to address the negative.
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A Personal Story. I took my kids to the pool on the last day of summer. There was only one family there. The father repeatedly told his children how to spend their time, instead of allowing them to freely enjoy the last few minutes of summer. Every time his son jumped off the board, the father commented on how he could have improved his technique. He was impressed with his own knowledge about swimming and diving. The boy said he was going to do a “half gainer.” (I don’t even know how to spell it, let alone do it!) Instead, he did a cannonball. His father criticized his choice, “That wasn’t a half gainer!” The boy, obviously discouraged and tired of the constant pressure and corrections just said, “Well, I changed my mind.” He ignored his father’s next few comments. The father explained the technical features of half gainers to his wife and anyone else who was willing to listen. I’m sure this father was trying to help, but the boy obviously wanted to play without the diving lesson.
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