“Helping Children Develop Feelings of Self-Worth,” Ensign, Feb. 2006, 32–37
In the popular Broadway musical (and later motion picture) My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins reshapes the image of Eliza Doolittle by teaching her to speak proper English, schooling her in the etiquette of high society, and dressing her in stylish gowns. As friends and acquaintances treat this “new” Eliza as a proper lady, she begins to view herself in a new light. The almost miraculous transformation results in a confident young woman emerging from a cocoon of self-disdain. She had previously viewed herself as a coarse, lower-class street peddler. With the acceptance and encouragement of others, she comes to recognize her individual worth and to believe she can contribute to society. Each of us, like Eliza Doolittle, has a sense of individual worth, either positive or negative. We develop this sense of worth to a large degree as we respond to the way others treat us.
It is important for parents (and leaders and teachers) to understand the powerful impact praise, acceptance, and encouragement have on a child’s sense of individual worth and confidence. Likewise, we need to be aware of how ridicule, rejection, and continual criticism can create personal doubt. Equally important, Latter-day Saint parents need to recognize how feeling Heavenly Father’s love, sensing the comfort and spiritual guidance that come with the Holy Ghost’s companionship, and gaining a personal testimony enhance a child’s sense of worth, personal confidence, and self-respect.
For over a decade we have studied more than 5,000 LDS high school students from three geographical regions within the United States, as well as from Great Britain and Mexico. We examined their levels of religious commitment and practices, the peer influences to which they are exposed, and what their parents do in the home to help them meet the challenges they face. The primary objective of our studies has been to ascertain the effect of faith, friends, and family in helping youth resist temptation and live the standards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.1 Several significant findings surfaced from this study—some anticipated and some not.
It was not surprising that the more religious Latter-day Saint youth are, the less likely they are to engage in inappropriate behaviors. What was surprising, however, was the powerful relationship between the level of a young person’s religious conviction and his or her sense of individual worth. Greater personal spirituality yields greater confidence. Young people who develop a strong relationship with God feel better about themselves and are better equipped to resist temptation and peer pressure. Our results also identified two specific things parents can do to reinforce their children’s spiritual and emotional confidence and help them meet the challenges of today’s difficult world: (1) strengthen the spiritual environment of the home, and (2) maintain a strong, loving relationship with each child.
Family Home Evening, Prayer, and Scripture Study
Our study showed that the young people with the strongest feelings of self-worth gained this confidence through gospel learning and spiritual experiences that took place primarily in the home. Regular family prayer, scripture study, and family home evening are cornerstones for establishing a household of faith. All of these activities are closely associated with stronger feelings of confidence in youth.
It appears that a spiritual home environment, coupled with involvement in Church activities and programs, guides young people to know the truthfulness of the gospel for themselves. “We parents need to take seriously our responsibility to provide religious training in the home so that our children will in turn take religion seriously and personally,” taught Elder Joe J. Christensen, then of the Seventy.2
Developing Their Own Spirituality
We found that those young people who regularly prayed and studied the scriptures on their own felt the Spirit more often in their lives and reported stronger feelings of individual worth and confidence. Unfortunately, one-fourth of the youth reported that they “rarely” or “never” say personal prayers. Too often they viewed participation in family prayer as “fulfilling the prayer quota” for the day. One of the most important things parents can do is to encourage their children to personally call upon their Heavenly Father to open and close each day. This one religious practice was found to be even more important than participation in family prayer. Family prayer and scripture study can be viewed as “external” religious practices, but individual prayer and scripture study are “internal” and nurture a personal relationship with God.
Likewise, we can teach them about the importance of personal testimony and how to obtain one, but we can’t do it for them. “My parents’ top priority,” one teenager in the study reported, “was that we develop our own personal testimonies.” Another stated: “I am so blessed to have parents who taught me to pray and read the scriptures on my own. They have taught me that I can have my own spiritual experiences.” A strong sense of individual worth comes naturally to those who have developed their own testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel and have experienced firsthand the fruits of the Spirit. Spiritual strength yields a confidence that cannot be obtained in any other way. As one young woman stated: “In my eyes, a testimony is the best prevention against Satan’s temptations and the most important thing parents can teach their children. My testimony is now what gives me my strength.”
Our study showed that the quality of the relationship parents have with their children is directly related to their children’s sense of worth and confidence. Three specific parental practices surfaced as significant factors in helping youth acquire their own testimonies and develop spiritual strength.
Give Daily Outpourings of Love
Feeling acceptance and affection from parents is vital for a child’s sense of acceptance. Sadly, about one out of every four LDS teens reported that they felt their parents did not adequately demonstrate their love for them. While we cannot know exactly how often and in what manner their parents actually expressed affection, we do know that more than 25 percent felt it did not measure up to what they desired and needed. It is difficult for teenagers to feel a sense of worth if their parents do not express love, appreciation, and respect for them. Those young people who exhibit a healthy confidence not only have come to feel Heavenly Father’s love for them but also have experienced consistent expressions of love and support from their earthly parents. “My parents are very affectionate,” one young man reported. “They always hug me and tell me they love me. That means a lot!” In contrast, many of the teens who expressed self-contempt reported that they did not feel loved by their parents and rarely, if ever, heard the words “I love you.” One high school student stated: “My family isn’t a hugging, touchy-feely sort of family. We have problems expressing our love to each other. I can count on one hand the number of times I have been hugged by my parents. I wish we would show our love more openly.” Each of us needs to feel loved, respected, accepted, and appreciated. We all need to hear verbal expressions of that love. It is especially vital for adolescents who are being bombarded with feelings of self-doubt and insecurity. As one teen declared, “I don’t think the words ‘I love you’ can ever be overused.”
It is difficult for some parents to hug their children and express love, even though such expressions are as vital to the emotional and spiritual development of their children as sunshine, good soil, and adequate water are for the healthy growth of a plant. A parent’s reluctance to express love can be compounded sometimes by the way children react—especially if they aren’t accustomed to experiencing such affection. They may roll their eyes, groan, and pull away, but deep inside they feel a special security that comes with the knowledge that they are loved. Expressing love takes little time, costs nothing, and yet yields rich dividends—here and hereafter. A daily outpouring of love is not only vital for emotional well-being but also essential to spiritual development.
Praise More Than You Criticize
Parents can and should look for opportunities to praise their children. Children’s accomplishments need not be monumental to deserve parental recognition and praise. Children, particularly adolescents, thrive on recognition and acceptance. The youth in our study who reported the most confidence and who felt best about themselves had regularly received praise and positive reinforcement from their parents. On the other hand, those with low levels of both spirituality and confidence overwhelmingly reported that they received far more criticism than praise from their parents and rarely felt respected and acceptable. “In my teenage years I was kind of emotionally unstable because of my low self-esteem,” one young adult reported. “Sometimes I felt and still feel like I can never do anything good enough for my parents. I feel like I can never meet their expectations.”
Parents need to have realistic expectations and be willing to recognize and appreciate less than “top of the class” or “best of team” performance—especially when their children are trying their best and seeking to improve. Unrealistic expectations can be discouraging for anyone, but especially for teenagers who naturally struggle with feelings of inadequacy. By contrast, expressions of acceptance and acknowledgment of effort strengthen young people emotionally and motivate them behaviorally. Children who are praised and recognized for their efforts as well as their deeds generally try harder to do even better.
Counsel, Don’t Control
Our study confirmed that Latter-day Saint youth, like other adolescents, will possess lower levels of confidence if their parents refuse them the opportunity to develop their own views of the world. Confidence and a sense of worth are directly linked to parents granting “psychological autonomy” to their children. Granting this kind of freedom is different from allowing children to exercise their agency in making decisions. It isn’t freedom to act on their own but rather to think and feel for themselves. It involves encouraging children to have and express their own ideas, feelings, opinions, and perceptions within a context of mutual respect. It is allowing them to be their own persons. Young people who are denied this kind of emotional freedom may become fearful adults who lack confidence in their ability to cope with the world.
Sadly, over one-third of the youth in our study reported that their parents seek to psychologically manipulate or control them by inducing guilt, withdrawing love, or dismissing their thoughts and opinions as unimportant. “One of my parents is very domineering and opinionated,” one teen observed. “If you disagree, get ready to have a debate to the death or just give up to avoid trouble. In our family there is only one ‘right’ opinion and you’d better be sure that yours matches it. Any opinion that is different is considered ‘unrighteous.’ I never felt like I could express my feelings.” Another stated: “I hate how one of my parents won’t listen to anything I say. My ideas and expressions are always dismissed just because I am a ‘kid.’”
Under these circumstances youth fail to have confidence in their own feelings, ideas, and abilities and often emotionally withdraw inside themselves and develop emotional problems such as depression, eating disorders, and even thoughts of suicide. Young people who feel their ideas, thoughts, and feelings have been minimized, ignored, or outright ridiculed by their parents may seek out a peer group that will give credibility to their opinions and feelings. Unfortunately, all too often these friends lack the emotional maturity and spiritual foundation to properly guide and direct them in principles of righteousness. When parents suppress a child’s freedom of thought and expression, sometimes the only way that child feels he or she can express a sense of individual identity and value is to rebel.
In contrast, young people who have internalized the gospel, gained their own testimonies, and developed a healthy sense of individual worth are those whose parents have counseled with them but have not sought to control them emotionally and intellectually. “My parents always encourage us to express our feelings and opinions. Even if our ideas are different from theirs, they respect us,” one young man reported. Parents don’t have to express approval of everything their children say or do. What is needed, however, is open communication within the family. When disapproval needs to be spoken and when discipline must be administered, it should be done in the context of love, respect, and understanding, as expressed by the Lord in the scriptures (see D&C 121:41–45).
Finally, we were excited to discover that the relationship between the various measures of religiosity, family life, and feelings of individual worth appeared consistently among Latter-day Saint youth in the various regions of the United States and in Great Britain and Mexico. It is especially reassuring to know that the principles of the gospel operate effectively regardless of geography, language, or culture. Where we live doesn’t seem to matter as much as what we are doing in our homes.
Faith and family are powerful instruments in bringing about a sense of spiritual worth that positively affects both attitudes and actions. Children who feel good about their relationship with their Heavenly Father and their earthly family feel good about themselves. This kind of confidence—not the self-esteem of the world that is thought to be obtained by popularity, stylish clothes, a fancy car, or other fleeting factors—inevitably leads to greater love for God and increased righteousness. As parents, we must see that all our actions and expressions lead to that desired end.
“Praying, holding family home evenings, and studying the scriptures with our children are important foundations. As we strive to create a spiritual environment, our family members can be led to those experiences that will help them build their own personal testimonies” (Elder Joe J. Christensen, One Step at a Time, 92).
“If you wish your children to be taught in the principles of the gospel, if you wish them to love the truth and understand it, if you wish them to be obedient to and united with you, love them! and prove … that you do love them by your every word and act to[ward] them” (President Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. , 316).
Most Ensign articles can be used for family home evening discussions, personal reflection, or teaching the gospel in a variety of settings.
Have family members walk around the house and find three things that strengthen them spiritually. Invite them to explain how these objects have brought strength. Using the section titled “Strengthening the Spiritual Environment,” discuss things the family can do to maintain a strong spiritual environment.
Ask family members how personal prayer has helped them. Use “Developing Their Own Spirituality” to explain the importance of prayer. Provide an object for each person to decorate as a reminder of the importance of daily personal prayer.
Use the section entitled “Give Daily Outpourings of Love” to answer the following questions: How would you prefer to be shown love? What are some ways you show love to others? Write each person’s name on a separate piece of paper. Pass the papers around and have everyone write something they love about that person. Read each paper aloud.