Helping Your Children Like Themselves

“Helping Your Children Like Themselves,” Ensign, Feb. 1983, 14

Helping Your Children Like Themselves

Ron and Jason, two nine-year-old Little Leaguers, are good friends. They are about the same size, but their actions on the baseball field illustrate a big difference between them. While Ron shouts, “Coach, let me pitch!” Jason seems content to sit on the bench and let the others play. When Ron comes up to bat, he fully expects to get a hit—maybe even a home run. But Jason knows he’s going to strike out—and he usually does.

The difference between the boys shows up in many situations. Ron approaches new experiences with enthusiasm, expecting to do well. Jason is usually pessimistic and often refuses to participate rather than exposing himself to possible failure.

One of the most important opinions a child has is as important as his view of himself. Children with high self-esteem view the world with optimism, confidence, and an expectation of success. Children with low self-esteem are apt to distrust their own ideas and abilities and be very tentative in life situations.

Every child needs to feel lovable and capable. To the degree that these feelings are present, self-esteem is enhanced; to the degree they are lacking, self-esteem is threatened.

Parents cannot assume all the credit for a child’s high self-esteem—and they shouldn’t accept all the blame for lack of it. However, there are some things parents can do to enhance their children’s view of themselves. Here are a few ideas:

1. Teach your children about their spiritual beginnings and their divine destiny. A correct understanding of who we are can help us learn to love ourselves. We are literally the spirit children of our Father in Heaven. We have within us the potential to become more and more like him.

Continually express to your children the truth that just as they were created in our Father in Heaven’s physical image, they have the power within themselves to gradually grow closer and closer to his spiritual image. Tell them that he loves them as his children and wants them to succeed.

2. React positively to your children, minimizing weaknesses or deficiencies. Not all children are equally attractive, lovable, or capable. But parental reactions have a great deal to do with a child’s self-acceptance. Recently a mother living in an attractive, well-kept home referred to one of her children as “really dumb.” The remark was made to a visitor in the child’s presence. A very real danger is that the daughter may believe her mother, accept the idea that she is “really dumb,” and behave accordingly.

Fortunately, children also believe sincere positive feedback from parents. Nurture your children’s self-esteem in spite of any deficiencies they may have. We all know of people like the plain girl who has a smile that lights up the world—and a personality to match—and the blind boy who excels academically and is socially popular. Behind every such child there is usually a warm and loving home with parents who don’t respond to them either with scorn or pity, but accept them as persons with value and capability.

3. Concentrate on your children’s individual strengths, avoiding negative comparisons with brothers and sisters. Judy hasn’t caused her parents a moment’s trouble. She attends her Church meetings regularly, has positive things to say about her seminary class, and has lots of good, active friends. But her younger sister, Patti, presents a puzzling contrast for her parents. She resists going to Church and is constantly in trouble with her teachers. She enrolled in seminary only at her parents’ insistence, but she misses class much of the time. She is attracted to friends who are inactive in the Church and disparaging of its values.

Patti sees little chance of outshining her sister for good attention, so unconsciously she seeks attention in other ways. Unfortunately the parents are compounding the problem by constantly holding her older sister up as an example. Patti rebels because of her strong need to “be her own person,” yet she feels guilty about her behavior and her self-esteem is low.

It’s not uncommon for parents to compare a child unfavorably with another child in the family. It may be done openly and consciously with statements such as, “Why can’t you be like John?” or “Sandra would never have done that!” Or it may be done in very subtle ways without the parents even being aware that such a comparison has been made. But in either case the message is often understood to be: “You are not as lovable or as capable as your brother or sister.” Usually, a parent uses comparisons to set up a positive example for the child to follow. But such comparisons are generally destructive to the self-esteem of children.

4. Allow opportunities for personal growth and encourage your children to do things for themselves. One role of parents is to help their children be confident, capable, and self-sufficient. This training process is a natural and gradual one; it begins when the child is very young. When he learns a new task, he wants to perform it over and over again. If he is restrained, he may vent his frustrations loudly. For example, Mrs. Anderson was puzzled at first when Kathleen, age one, suddenly went into a screaming tantrum when she was being undressed for bed. Then she realized she had pulled off Kathleen’s socks rather than waiting for her to do it herself. Only after she put the socks on her again and let her remove them was Kathleen happy again. Who would imagine that the need to feel capable could be apparent at such an early age!

Usually parents who over-protect their children and do everything for them act out of good—though mistaken—motives, such as pity or a desire to protect them from any adversity or inconvenience. But sometimes the behavior is self-serving. A mother may attempt to bolster her ego or gain praise from others by demonstrating how wonderful and self-sacrificing she is. A father may unconsciously attempt to make himself indispensable to the child in order to prevent later rejection. But whatever the reason, the potential results are the same—dependency, lack of self-confidence, limited initiative and creativity, and low self-esteem.

As parents continue to do things for the child that he is capable of doing, dependency may change to complacency, and complacency may lead to demanding the “right” of being waited on—to the child’s detriment.

5. Boost your children’s feelings of importance and self-worth. An acquaintance recalls that when he was a young boy, an electrician came to do some wiring. It was necessary to string some wires in a little crawl space under the house. Since the space was too small to accommodate an adult, the electrician asked the boy if he would go in and pull the wires through. When the boy had done it, the man handed him a quarter, and the proud boy went to show it to his mother. Her response was, “Oh, a quarter is too much. Go back and tell him that a dime is plenty.”

No doubt the mother was only trying to be fair to the electrician, but the fact that the man remembered the incident after thirty years seems quite significant.

How much better it would have been for the mother to have said, “A quarter is a lot of money. He must have thought you did a real good job.” Or she might have used the experience to teach him about service and help him realize the good feeling that comes from service offered freely. Such an approach would contribute to the child’s self-esteem instead of lowering it.

6. Spend quality time with your children. Ideally, each child in a family should have some individual time every day with each parent. This time may be difficult to arrange in a large family, but the benefits are well worth the effort. Sometimes a parent who is heavily involved in activities that take him away from home will attempt to compensate by buying the children expensive or elaborate gifts. But the best gift parents can give is themselves.

Activities such as camping, fishing, shopping, going to ball games, washing the car, weeding the garden, or simply sitting and talking together allow for significant interaction to take place. A gift of your time says to your child, “Dad and mom like to be with me. They think I’m OK.” In this way feelings of self-esteem are enhanced.

7. Take time for training. As adults we sometimes forget that tasks that seem relatively clear-cut and simple to us may be confusing or overwhelming to a child. A mother may say to her daughter, “Please clean up your room,” and then assume that if it is not done within a reasonable period of time the girl is disobedient and lazy. But it may be that the girl does not know how to proceed, or she may know through past experience that no matter how hard she tries, her mother will not be satisfied with her efforts. It is important for parents to provide training in order for their child to feel competent. It may be necessary to work side by side with him several times until he can proceed confidently on his own. A feeling of competency in assigned tasks will help develop self-esteem.

8. Teach your children to look for the good in others and to praise others. Fifteen-year-old Carol never seems to have a good word to say about anyone. Her teachers are “stupid”; kids in the neighborhood are “weird”; and her parents “never listen to me” and “don’t understand me.” The words stupid, idiot, gross, spastic, and boring dot her vocabulary continually. Because of her negative attitude, other children avoid her; she is very much a loner.

How does Carol feel about herself? Her negative view of others and of her world may be a reflection of her own poor self-concept. And her speech and poor attitudes invite criticism and rejection, further deflating her already low self-esteem.

It is interesting that people tend to see their own strengths and weaknesses reflected in others. A dishonest person is quick to notice dishonesty in someone else; the honest person tends to expect honesty in others. A person with a healthy self-concept is likely to see those around him as individuals of worth; one who hates or distrusts himself is likely to have similar feelings about others. A person with a genuine feeling of self-esteem has no need to cut others down to make himself feel important. Rather, he has an increased capacity to lift up those around him.

Help your children concentrate on the strengths of others, rather than dwelling on their weaknesses. This will help them recognize their own personal strengths and develop strong, healthy self-esteem.

9. Teach your children to look for the good in themselves and not dwell upon their limitations. Don was born with a withered and almost useless right arm. It would have been easy for him to feel sorry for himself and shy away from physical activities requiring the use of two arms. But he has never let it be a problem. If you were to say something to him about his handicap, he would probably answer in all sincerity, “What handicap?” Don plays golf, baseball, and basketball, and is able to compete very well. The withered arm is usually a problem for him only upon first acquaintance. Once you know him you forget all about it. He is a student officer in his high school and has many friends. Don’s parents have never dwelt upon his “handicap.” They expect him to perform well in the things he does, and his ability to meet their expectations gives him a feeling of capability and self-esteem.

It’s all right to feel good about ourselves. False modesty isn’t a virtue. The child who values himself and the things he does is likely to exude a quiet, secure feeling of self-worth.

Perhaps the best way to teach a child to look for the good in himself is to model this behavior for him. It is good for parents to be able to admit mistakes and honestly say at times, “Boy, I sure goofed this time!” Such honesty need not detract from one’s own self-esteem or from the child’s image of the parent. Children should know that adults make their share of mistakes too. Being casual about a mistake or failure can help to teach a child to accept his own limitations casually. By the same token, an honest recognition that “I like the way I did that; things worked out quite well” can help the child learn to feel good about his own efforts, thus building self-esteem.

10. Openly express your love for your children, both in word and action. Those three simple little words, “I love you,” come very hard for some people. And just as some find it difficult to communicate expressions of love to their spouse, some find it difficult to show love for their children. To say “I love you” may be too embarrassing, or they may worry about how the child would react to such an expression.

However, there is probably nothing that contributes as much to self-esteem as the experience of being loved. Too often we just assume that our children know we love them. But a hug, a kiss on the cheek, or a simple “I love you” can work miracles in strengthening relationships with them and in enhancing their self-esteem.

Every child needs to feel that he is lovable and capable if he is to develop the self-esteem that will prepare him for life. If we as parents will follow conscientiously and consistently these ten suggestions, our children’s behavior will improve and their self-esteem is almost certain to be enhanced.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Helping Your Children Like Themselves,” you may wish to discuss some of the following:

1. Why are feelings of being lovable and capable so important to high self-esteem?

2. How can a proper gospel understanding of our relationship with Heavenly Father enhance self-esteem?

3. As you consider each of your children, do you notice signs of low self-esteem? Which ideas in this article could help you in your efforts to enhance their view of themselves?

4. Evaluate your own self-esteem. Which ideas in this article could help you improve your own self-image?

  • James M. Harris, professor of educational psychology at Brigham Young University and father of eight children, serves as a counselor in his ward Sunday School presidency, Provo, Utah.

Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten