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Building self-esteem in girls

Who has the greatest opportunity to compliment you?

When Wendy Cullum asks elementary school children this question, they usually say their teachers, parents, coaches or friends.

They’re wrong, said Cullum, who teaches lessons in self-esteem.

How they think about themselves “is only under their control,” she said. They can choose whether or not “to accept or believe” what others say.

“We want to believe the good stuff. It’s the bad stuff we don’t have to believe.”

Cullum, of Chino Hills, Calif., is the author of “Project Self-Esteem,” a guide she has been using for 12 years — and offers to other schools — to build healthy levels of self-esteem in elementary school students.    

She writes a blog on children’s self-esteem, bullying and other topics for her website,

“We have to show them and tell them their potential,” she said.

Bombarded by unrealistic media images of femininity, young girls are under pressure to “be thin, beautiful, big chested,” she said. “They worry, ‘How do I look?’ pretty much all the time.”

Gender differences  

The process of building self-esteem is different in girls compared to boys, she said. 

“The difference is (evident) in how they express themselves,” she said. “Girls are more emotional on the outside. They get their self-esteem from words.

“Boys get self-esteem from performance, from their actions. They get inspired by other boys.”

Boys don’t want to talk about their feelings, she said. They also “don’t put each other down as much” as girls do.

“Girls care about what others think and are constantly comparing themselves,” she said.

Boys and girls are “wired” differently, she said.

“As emotional creatures, (girls) look at the energy of the other person, the body language. They look for hidden meaning (in messages); they think, ‘What did she really mean?’” she said, whereas boys take others’ words at face value.

“Self-esteem, like trust, takes years to build,” Cullum said, “but only seconds to destroy.”

Same tools

The tools that parents use for building self-esteem are the same for boys and girls, Cullum said.

They include encouraging service to others, emphasizing a grateful attitude, setting rules and letting kids fail.

Spending quality time with kids is essential to building self-esteem, she said. “That shows him that the people closest to him actually care about who he is.”    

It’s also important that parents feel good about themselves, she said.

“We should not go around the house saying ‘I’m fat’ or ‘I’m stupid.’”   

Parents may also misstep by not paying attention to their kids’ friends, Cullum said.

“If they’re hanging out with someone whose self-esteem is low, that’s going to affect your child.”   

Kids’ over-use of the Internet and other electronics also threatens their self-esteem, she said. “It takes away a lot of intimate time together.”

Setting a rule that bans such devices at dinnertime in order to have a conversation would allow parents and kids to connect, she said.    

“Positive communication is the biggest action we can take.” 

Praising children is crucial, she said. “Kids want to know how (parents) feel about them, what we think about them.

“Praise and love — love is number one,” she said. “I don’t think we tell them enough.”