When Sean Brotherson teaches parents about parenting, he likes to ask a few questions to encourage them to think about building self-esteem in their children.
He asks, “If my child was dependent only on me today for the needed supply of love and supports for self-esteem, how far would my child be able to travel? What have I done today to provide for my child’s journey to self-esteem? Will they run out of fuel?
“That’s not all that self-esteem is about, but it’s a good starting point,” said Brotherson, professor of human development and extension family science specialist at North Dakota State University.
In developing a child’s self-esteem, the parents’ role is similar to a mirror, he said.
“The sense that children have of themselves is, to a significant degree, a reflection of how the parent sees the child and how the parent interacts with the child.”
So he asks parents, “Are you pointing out the warts or the positive perspectives about your child’s potential and unique qualities and strengths?”
“Children have to build a sense of self - it’s part of being human,” he said. “They will incorporate whatever material is available to them, positive or negative.”
The effects may be long-lasting, he said. “If you call a child ‘fat, ugly or dumb’ the child could internalize and live by that ‘script.’ ”
“As a parent, you want to be the one who’s providing positive, supportive messages (that) will help a child to become happy and confident in relationships.”
Building healthy self-esteem in children matters so much because it influences how they are going to think and feel about themselves, said Kristen Votava, early childhood education graduate director at the University of North Dakota.
“Research would say that we want to raise kids to be confident in themselves and have good ‘inner talk,’ to be able to say, ‘I can get it done,’ ” she said. “We want them to feel proud of themselves and to be able to problem solve.”
Good parenting is aimed at giving children tools to handle life’s challenges, she said.
“We want to bond with them and help them handle their emotions. Kids are always watching us; they’re learning how to handle things from watching the way we handle them.”
A child’s need to bond with an adult is in-born, she said. “From the beginning, all they want is that connection ... You can see that in a baby when they’re searching and they light up when they see Mom or Dad.”
As they get older, their behavior is reinforced by their parents’ favorable responses, she said. “They see that positive reaction; they see their parents smiling and think, ‘Oh, that’s good, I’ll keep doing this.’ ”
Taking the time to interact positively with children builds self-esteem, Votava said.
“Kids need time, energy and patience. I think, in our world, we’re always rushing. If we take time to let them figure something out and do it themselves, they become proud from within. As a parent, you can say ‘You did it.’ ”
Parents should take part in their children’s play and “show excitement in what they’re doing,” she said. That positive interaction will help the child “to know they can work through things on their own.”
“Language is so important,” said Votava, whose professional focus is birth to age 3. “More and more, research says that we need to give children ‘emotion words’ - names for emotions - to use in their own thoughts” and teach them how they can work through problems.
“For example, ‘I know you’re mad because you have to quit playing and come get groceries with me.’ That’s part of setting limits; it’s saying, ‘There are things we have to do, even if we don’t always want to.’”
This practice will help children mentally process frustrations, she said. “It encourages them to say to themselves, ‘I’m sad, but I can do this in order to get through it’” when facing a problem.
Votava encourages parents to “let children problem-solve and feel confident and feel good about what they can do when something doesn’t go quite right.”
These days, parents “don’t think about the possibilities of how kids can help out,” she said. “They don’t want to put stress on the child.
“Even a 1-year-old can take a rag and wipe up milk that’s spilled. It makes the child feel that they’re contributing to the household.”
Parents should not be so quick to step in to do things for their kids, even though it’s tempting to, given their busy lives, she said.
When parents give praise or instructions, it’s important to be specific, she said.
“Say things such as ‘I like how you figured out how to open that bottle’ or ‘I like that you worked so hard on that project.’ We need to tell children why we’re proud of them,” she said.
“If you tell a child, ‘go, clean that up’ - what does that mean?” she said. “It may mean something different to the parent than it does the child. You may need to tell and show what you want him to do.”
“Specific praise and support is more helpful to a child’s sense of worth than general praise,” he said. “Instead of saying, ‘That’s a nice picture, Johnny,’ it’s better to say, ‘I really like the way you used these colors.’ That specificity shows you’re paying attention.
“It also encourages them to think about detail in what they do and how they interact with others.”
Child development research has shown that instead of general praise (“you’re wonderful”), it’s better to ground self-esteem in specifics related to skills and abilities which will allow children to function well in society.
“That development, learning and growth are part of who they are and should be celebrated. That true sense of confidence comes from knowing they mastered something,” Brotherson said.
“The parent is the child’s first teacher, perhaps his most important teacher.”
Parents should not, however, give praise when it’s not warranted, Votava said.
“Not everything is going to go right all the time. A child knows if you’re being honest and authentic with them.”
When things are not going well, parents “can ‘redirect’ children by saying, ‘We could try this,’ which helps children with problem solving.”
If correction is necessary, focus your criticism on the action, not the child, Brotherson advises. “The message ‘you’re stupid’ goes to the child’s character. If he internalizes it, he may think ‘That’s who I am, I may always be that way.’”
Instead, focus criticism on “the temporary action or choice that can be changed,” he said.
Parents’ contribution to a child’s self-esteem “is absolutely critical,” he said. “There is no more important work that a parent does than the work they do within their own walls in developing a child’s self-worth.”
Tips for building a child’s self-esteem
A child does not naturally think he’s ugly, stupid, a failure or unlovable unless those around him make him* feel that way.
Stop yourself from saying:
- "What’s the matter with you?”
- "You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
- "You’re so dumb.”
- "Why can’t you ever do it right?”
- "Shut up.”
Such comments set a child up to feel bad about himself for life. If a parent yells at a child frequently and makes him feel bad or ashamed, he have low self-esteem.
Replace negative comments with positive ones:
- "I’m so proud of you.”
- "Here, do this instead.”
- "I know you’re smart, so let’s do it this way.”
- "I know you can share.”
A child with high self-esteem:
- Thinks he can succeed
- Thinks he is nice-looking
- Thinks he is fun to be around
- Is not afraid to take chances
- Believes in himself and likes himself
- Feels safe and is free to express his feelings
By school age, children need to feel good about themselves to do well and help them make friends.
*All tips apply to both boys and girls