I was a 5th grade teacher before I became a parent and as a result I was able to observe a wide range of children's abilities and interests before I was blessed with the title of "Dad." Occasionally, some students would voice frustration about how Mom and/or Dad wasn't supportive of their particular interests or goals.
"I want to go into space someday!"... "I want to be a zookeeper!"... "I want to race cars!"... "I want to be a singer!"... "I want to..." and the list goes on. Kids dream and it's important for parents to build a child's self esteem so that he or she can become all that they can be.
When I was a fifth grade student I wanted to be an astronaut. However, I couldn't do any motion rides (carousel, roller coaster, etc.) without feeling ill, so I knew there was a barrier between me and speeding into space on a rocket... motion sickness! Suffice it to say, I've never gotten higher off the ground than about 40,000 feet on a trans-Atlantic flight. However, my parents never discouraged me when I would speak about rockets and space. I was the youngest of seven children and I consistently observed my parents encouraging me and my siblings in our interests and goals. When I became a parent, I too did whatever was needed to make certain that my children had opportunities to pursue their interests... and to dream. Working two jobs, traveling to weekend competitions, buying the latest sports shoes or equipment, paying for music lessons/instruments, and more. There is a lot of 'behind the scenes' work that goes into truly building a child's self esteem.
There are a ton of books available to educate parents on ways to build self esteem in a child. Over the past 23+ years of wearing the 'Dad' hat, I've read a few. Mostly, I've tried to mirror the example of my own parents. I've not always been successful (and no parent is!), but I've aimed to be a positive parent who is attentive and supportive. Now that three of my four children are adults, my role is primarily one of being a voice of encouragement. One thing that I've learned is kids that are allowed to dream grow up to be adults who dream... and this world needs dreamers! Here are some ways to build your child's self esteem, and perhaps these suggestions will help to bring their dreams into reality.
Give unconditional love: All parents should love their child this way. Unconditional love is love given regardless of what the child does and who they become. It is loving without conditions. It is loving the child regardless of his or her abilities, strengths, struggles, or attitude. Unconditional love is unconditional acceptance of your child.
Pay attention: We live in a world of distractions. Cell phones, computers, and other conveniences in our technologically-advanced society can distract us from genuinely paying attention to our children when they are talking to us. Yes, the reverse can also be said. However, I'm focusing on parents here -- who should always aim to set a good example. Simply said, put the phone down, turn away from the computer or television, and listen to your child. It sends the message that you you want to not only 'hear' their words but actually 'listen' to them. It shows that you feel that what they have to say is important, and that certainly helps to boost a child's self esteem.
Allow trying new things: You may have a child that hasn't shown an athletic bone in their body, but suddenly wants to join a school's sports team. Don't dampen their enthusiasm with words of doubt. Instead, let them try and be a voice of encouragement. As we all know, failing is a part of succeeding and your child will need to be able to turn to you when discouragement rears its head. Parents certainly need to guide their children toward choices that we believe would be most beneficial for them. However, don't ridicule your child if he or she comes to you with an interest or goal that may not be something that YOU would have chosen for them. We're all individuals and need to be able to explore our interests without fearing retribution from those closest to us. However, if the new thing that your child wants to try is dangerous, reckless or harmful to his or her well being, then as their parent you have the responsibility to protect your child and to communicate your perspective and opinion of the inherent negatives of the situation.
Let mistakes happen: Any parent who has raised a child can tell you that mistakes do happen -- on both sides. Children mess up and so do parents! As parents we hope that our children will forgive us when we fall short in our parenting. With that said, children too want to be forgiven when they've made a mistake. Confidence builds from making mistakes and then learning from them so as to not make a similar mistake again. At the onset of this post I shared the definition of self esteem as "having confidence in one's own worth or abilities; self-respect." Self esteem requires confidence and the more we master something and learn from our mistakes the more we gain confidence. Never make your child feel worthless because he or she failed at something. Instead, encourage them to try again and explain to them the old adages "you have to get back on the horse," or "fall down 9 times, get up 10."
Celebrate the positive: Children are often being corrected by parents, teachers, and others in authority. Correction is needed and sets the child on a course toward appropriate and acceptable behavior. However, to build self esteem a child also needs to hear about the positives that he or she does -- more so than the negatives. It's not only a matter of saying "good job" or "way to go," but it's also being specific in a compliment to the child. WHAT was so good, or WHY did the child do so well? Let your child know what he or she did that was so positive. When we correct a child we are often focused on something specific that they are doing wrong. Likewise, we should be specific in our celebration of the positives. To make an even greater impact on your child, let them hear you talk highly of them to someone else. It will enhance the child's sense of accomplishment.
Listen well: Any busy parent knows that it's easy to slip into a mode of 'hearing' your child but not necessarily 'listening' to them. True listening involves eye contact, no distractions, and actually exchanging thoughts. It is listening for understanding and a parent who listens to their child will demonstrate to them that what they have to say is not only important but also worth your time. Good listening with thoughtful responses is a skill that everyone benefits from. For your child, your listening will make them feel as though their thoughts are worthwhile and that can certainly contribute to the building of self esteem
Resist comparisons: Comparing your son or daughter to another sibling, friend, classmate or teammate conveys the message that you don't fully appreciate the person he or she is. You communicate through such comparisons that you would prefer your child was more like someone else. This can be very damaging to self esteem and can contribute to barriers in communication, feelings of depression, emotional withdrawal, and more. Resist comparing your child to someone else. Instead, focus on YOUR child and his or her efforts.
Offer empathy: Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. A parent who can be empathetic with their son or daughter will be able to connect with their feelings while at the same time pointing out to them that we all have strengths and weaknesses, but that we don't have to be perfect in order to be loved, accepted or appreciated. In moments when empathy is called for, focus on a particular strength or character quality that your child has that offsets the disappointment, discouragement or sadness of the situation that they are dealing with. Help them to understand that the situation does not define them as a person and that they can learn something of value through the struggle.
Provide encouragement: Every child... in fact, everyone... needs to hear from those we love and are close such words as "You can do it!"... "Keep going!"... "I'm proud of you!" Consistent encouragement to a child is one of the greatest methods for boosting self esteem. Knowing that someone they love and respect is in their corner can make a world of difference when facing the big game, the big performance, or the big test. Encouragement is a way to acknowledge the effort being made. It's important to be encouraging regardless of the points scored or the grade received by the child. It keeps a child from feeling defeated or a failure in a parent's eyes.
These are just a few ways that you can build your child's self esteem. You may be doing all of these, or perhaps there are some in the list that you feel you don't do often enough. It's okay. As parents we 'grow up' with our kids, maturing in the role of "parent" as the child matures. Look for ways that you can build self esteem in your child -- and then do it! I believe you'll see positive results.
The P.A.C.E. Fitness Foundation, Inc.
P.A.C.E. is a non-profit organization aimed at Promoting Active Children Everywhere.