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“Parents need to fill a child’s bucket of self-esteem so high that the rest of the world can’t poke enough holes to drain it dry.” - Alvin Price
As we raise our children, we fill their proverbial toolboxees with the tools they’ll need to build happy, successful lives.
In order for this toolbox to be complete, it’s essential that we give our children the gift of self-esteem.
People with high self-esteem like themselves and believe that they are capable and worthy. As a result, they make better choices, become more resilient, and push harder to reach their goals. They’re more likely to be happy, successful, and emotionally healthy.
Every parent wants to build their child’s self-esteem, but many are unsure how to go about it. Do we shower our kids with compliments 24/7? Do we shield them from failure so they’ll feel good about themselves?
These approaches seem reasonable, but they can actually be detrimental to our kids’ self-esteem in the long run. Kids build lasting self-esteem when they feel competent, accepted, and loved.
Here are five effective ways to give your child the vital tool of self-esteem.
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1. Give Your Child Choices and Responsibilities
To help your child feel competent, even from a young age, it’s important to let her tackle age-appropriate choices and responsibilities.
When children are allowed to make choices, they feel more powerful, says Victoria Sopik, CEO of corporate childcare service Kids and Company and mother of eight.
If your child is very young, these choices can initially be limited to a couple of options provided by you, like choosing between waffles or pancakes for breakfast. Young kids can also choose items they want to eat at a restaurant or in the grocery store, or an outfit they’d like to wear to school.
Making choices and taking responsibility for their decisions helps kids build confidence. It also prepares them for the more difficult choices they’ll face later in life.
It’s helpful to give children age-appropriate responsibilities as well, like simple chores around the house. These chores could include setting the table, folding clothes, feeding the dog, making the bed, etc. Older children can do laundry, take out the trash, or help prepare meals.
At first, spend time demonstrating the chore and helping your child learn how to complete the task successfully. Then allow your child to do the chore independently, even if it isn’t perfect every time.
According to Jim Taylor, author of Your Kids Are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You, chores build self-esteem because your child is able to demonstrate her competence and feel that she is making a valuable contribution.
Your child may whine now, but she’ll thank you later.
2. Praise Sincerely
It’s a common misconception that constant praise will help our kids build self-esteem. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with praising your child, but it’s important to give praise sparingly.
Over-praising our children (“You’re perfect!” and “You’re the best artist in the whole world!”) can actually do more harm than good.
Jim Taylor explains that over-praising our children “lowers the bar” for them. If kids grow up hearing that they’re the best at everything, they may never push themselves to continue improving. Real, lasting confidence comes from trying, failing, and making hard-earned progress.
It’s also important to praise our kids genuinely. Don’t tell your child they’re an excellent speller if they aren’t (yet).
Psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer found that while children under seven tend to accept praise at face value, older children are more suspicious of excessive praise.
For instance, older children in Meyer’s study believed that receiving effusive praise from a teacher was actually a sign of performing poorly. They noticed that struggling students were often drowned in praise, so they believed praise was a sign that the teacher felt a student needed extra encouragement.
Psychologists Jennifer Henderlong Corpus and Mark Lepper, who analyzed over 30 years of studies on the effects of praise, report that insincere praise can make children think you feel sorry for them, are manipulating them, or simply don’t understand them.
So while we might think we’re encouraging our kids with even insincere praise, they may actually view it as a sign of failure. Instead, give your child genuine praise for genuine achievements.
Henderlong and Lepper also found that kids are more likely to doubt general or sweeping praise, so try to avoid exaggerating too much. Instead of saying, “You’re the best artist in the world!” try saying something specific like, “You’re getting so good at coloring in the lines!” or, “This is a beautiful flower.”
Of course, we really do think our kids are the best. But it’s important to keep praise sparing, genuine and specific. That way, our kids know we really mean it.
3. Use Failure as an Opportunity to Build Self-Esteem
Far from shattering a child’s self-esteem, failure, says Jim Taylor, can actually be a “golden opportunity” to build it.
Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, professor of psychology at Temple University, says, “It’s particularly important for young children to have the chance to play and take risks without feeling that their parents will criticize or correct them for doing something wrong.”
Take a deep breath, then let your child challenge herself, make mistakes, and occasionally fail. Afterwards, make it clear that you still love her just the same.
If you only focus on your child’s stellar performances and awesome achievements, she may start to think your love is based on the A’s on her report cards or the goals she scored in the soccer game.
Demonstrating to your child that your love is unconditional can help her feel loved and accepted for who she is, two important components of healthy self-esteem.
Plus, trying again after failing, and improving through hard work and practice, can help your child’s confidence soar.
4. Avoid Harsh Criticism and Sarcasm
Parents are pretty much superheroes, but we’re also human. Sometimes we get frustrated and say things we don’t mean.
Still, it’s important to remember that the messages kids hear about themselves also impact how they feel about themselves.
In thirty years of counseling children and families, Dr. Kenneth Barish, author of Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems, says the most common problem he’s seen is that parents are unwittingly too critical of their children.
Children want to do well. Even when they pretend otherwise, they want their parents to approve of them and be proud of them. The way we view our kids (or the way they think we view them) can have a profound impact on the way they view themselves.
For this reason, it’s important to avoid sarcasm or harsh criticism like, “You’re so lazy!” or, “Why are you so bad lately?”
You will get frustrated or angry with your kids sometimes. You’re not a robot, and that’s okay. Just take a quick break, walk away, or do some deep breathing. Take a few minutes to cool off before saying something you’ll regret.
Harsh messages aren’t motivating for kids; they’re damaging. Over time, they can cause children to have a negative view of themselves.
Of course, we can’t never criticize our kids. Criticism is sometimes a necessary part of parenting. Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance, offers some general guidelines for healthy criticism:
- Avoid giving criticism in front of others.
- Avoid giving criticism while angry.
- Criticize thoughtfully.
- Criticize gently.
While these guidelines were developed for young athletes, they also make great suggestions for children in general. We have to correct and criticize our children sometimes, but try to do it with kindness rather than anger.
You can also explain to your child that although you sometimes dislike her behavior, you will never dislike her.
5. Create Opportunities for Success
We shouldn’t shield our children from failure, but there are many ways we can create more opportunities for success.
Teach your child to successfully do things for herself from a young age. Learning to dress herself, for example, can give a preschooler a sense of accomplishment and pride.
You want your child to take on challenges that aren’t too easy. At the same time, you don’t want your child to confront challenges that are unrealistic or not developmentally appropriate.
For instance, if your child grows frustrated with his reading abilities, temporarily bring home some books at a lower reading level. As your child successfully reads these books, he will not only build confidence, but also practice his reading skills. Later, he’ll likely be able to tackle the higher-level books that frustrated him in the first place.
You can also create opportunities for success by focusing on your child’s strengths. Notice what your child enjoys and does well, and give her opportunities to nurture these abilities.
Katie Hurley, child psychotherapist and author of The Happy Kid Handbook, stresses the importance of accepting and celebrating the interests and strengths children choose for themselves.
It’s okay if your child doesn’t want to do the same activities as the other neighborhood kids, or if you wanted her to be a sports star and she loves science instead. It’s important for children to feel fully accepted by their parents, rather than judged.
Focusing on strengths instead of dwelling on weaknesses can help children succeed and feel good about themselves.
If self-esteem were a recipe, the ingredients would be competence, acceptance, and love.
Help your child feel competent by giving her age-appropriate choices and responsibilities. Focus on her strengths in order to create opportunities for success. Offer sincere, meaningful praise.
Add some acceptance by showing your child that her mistakes and struggles don’t diminish your love. Celebrate her interests and strengths, even if they aren’t the ones you would have chosen.
And top it all off with love by demonstrating that your love is not conditional on success. When you must criticize your child, do so thoughtfully and gently.
These are simple steps, but they’ll help your child build a happy and successful life with the powerful tool of self-esteem.
Your Kids Are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You by Jim Taylor
Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems by Dr. Kenneth Barish
The Happy Kid Handbook by Katie Hurley