“Parents have a lot to worry about. How to keep their kids safe when they are out of sight? How to keep them away from the negative influences of peers, movies, competing ethics and values that vie for their attention nearly every day? And frequently parents ask me, “How can I know that the kind of parenting I practice will encourage a strong sense of self esteem in my child, while at the same time making sure not to overwhelm them with unrealistic expectations?
These days it is much easier to figure out the best way to parent for self-esteem than ever before, because educators have done so many studies on the positive benefits of nurturing self-esteem in children, that there are now clearly identifiable differences between the family lives of children who exhibit high self-esteem and those who exhibit low self-esteem.
For example, Dr. Stanley Coopersmith of the University of California did one such study. What Dr. Coppersmith discovered was that parents of high self-esteem kids generally demonstrated more love and acceptance of their children through simple everyday expressions of affection and attention than did the parents of low self-esteem kids. The latter parents tended to be highly critical and vocally judgmental of their children most of the time.
At the same time, contrary to what “conventional wisdom” might suggest, the parents of high self-esteem kids were less permissive, less ambiguous, and more consistent about their expectations for their children’s behavior. The parents of low self-esteem kids tended to be inconsistent and unclear about their expectations. Either they never set rules, or they didn’t follow through with enforcement of their rules when they did set them.
In addition, children with high self-esteem tended to come from families with an overall democratic tone and practice. They grew up believing that their opinions mattered, even when they were quite young. Their parents paid attention to them and to their needs and wants, and took their suggestions and contributions seriously.
What are the differences between a child with high self-esteem and a child with low self-esteem? You can reasonably measure your children’s behavior and attitudes against the following “Self-esteem checklist,” that I have adapted from Self-Esteem: The Key to Your Child’s Well-Being, by H. Clemes and R. Bean.
A child with high self-esteem, most likely 1) is proud of his or her accomplishments in life, 2) can act independently, 3) assumes responsibility, 4) can tolerate frustrations, 5) approaches challenges with enthusiasm, 6) feels capable of taking charge of situations in his or her own life, 7) has a good sense of humor, 8) can postpone gratification, 9) seeks help when needed, 10) is confident and resourceful, 11) is active and energetic, and able to spontaneously express his or her feelings, 12) is relaxed and able to manage stress.
On the other side of the scale, a child with low self-esteem, most likely 1) avoids situations that require risk-taking, 2) feels powerless, 3) becomes easily frustrated, 4) is overly sensitive, 5) always needs reassurance, 6) is easily influenced by others, 7) frequently uses the phrases “I don’t know,” and “I don’t care,” 8) is withdrawn, 9) blames others for his or her failures, 10) is isolated, has few friends, is preoccupied, 11) is uncooperative and angry, 12) is uncommunicative, 13) is clingy and dependent, 14) is constantly complaining, and 15) has a generally negative attitude about life.
All of these negative attributes can be found in even kids with great self-esteem some time. It is more the overall pattern, a consistency of attitude and behavior that generally tells the tale. The list is here to present a guideline for you, to give you something to watch for as you work to encourage a strong self of self with your own children.
As always, the most powerful tool you have for nurturing a positive attitude about life in your children is your own example on a daily basis. You are the ever-present mirror that reflects back to your children whether the world is basically a safe, loving, positive place, or a frightening, insecure and anxiety-producing jungle. It is often difficult for parents to accept the responsibility of their own power and influence over their kids, but the reality is that as the adult, you set the tone for life itself with your children.
Kids look to their parents to serve as a kind of daily “reality check” to know what shape the world is in. Is it scary or safe? Is it friendly or hostile? Is it basically a positive or negative place in which to live? That is why your own attitude about life is so crucial a factor in determining the internal sense of security and well being of your children.
In many ways it is like every parent’s experience with toddlers who fall down. At first when they fall, they simply get back up again. But as soon as a parent makes a big fuss over the fact that they have fallen, or runs to them to see if they are hurt, the next time they fall they look up to see if the parent is coming, and the next time they are likely to start crying the minute they hit the ground. The child’s experience of the behavior of his or her parents has taught that child that falling down is scary, not safe and something to worry about.
Children use the mirror of their parents along with the mirror of other children by which to gauge their own sense of self. They observe how peers treat them, even as infants in play groups, and thereby make decisions about themselves as valuable or unimportant, worthwhile or insignificant. As they grow they do the same with teachers – using the kind and quality of the attention that they receive in class to help them determine internally whether they are “smart” or “dumb,” successful or unsuccessful as students.
That is why not only in the early years, but throughout their lives, the messages that parents communicate to their children about who they are, their internal value as people continues to serve as a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” that can either instill a sense of inadequacy and failure, or help lead your child to a strong sense of their own value and worth.