We all know how important it is that we feel good about ourselves. And we’ve all heard the stories about misguided efforts to instill self-esteem in children. Yet we know instinctively there there’s something to it.
What is it?
So what exactly is self esteem? How is it developed? And is there any way we, as the most important adult male in our children’s lives, can establish and enhance such feelings in our children?
Self-esteem is defined as a feeling of pride in oneself, a feeling of satisfaction and confidence. From a psychological perspective, it’s a person’s evaluation of oneself, an “appraisal of self-worth.” Interestingly, self-esteem can be general (“I’m a great person!”), or specific (“I’m a great pianist, but a lousy football player!”). While generally assumed to have an impact on success in life and in individual happiness, the concept of self-esteem hasn’t avoided controversy, with some psychologists questioning our emphasis on self-esteem.
Regardless, it seems pretty clear that children who don’t have a healthy sense of self-esteem – that evaluation of their own worth – aren’t going to be able to approach new tasks and situations with a feeling of confidence, a feeling that whatever develops, they’ll be able to handle the curve balls that life inevitably hurls at us.
Why is self-esteem important?
Consider teaching a boy the rudiments of baseball – catching and throwing the ball, and, later on, hitting it with a bat. It may be hard to believe, but a boy without the self-confidence we’re talking about is going to shy away from trying to catch the ball, afraid not only of getting hit and hurt by the ball, and also of failure – disappointing Dad.
The same goes for many endeavors encountered for the first time. How often have we heard one or another of our children holler (at full blast, in stereo!), “It’s too hard – I can’t do it!” It’s a universal complaint that can be applied to piano, ballet, long division, and pretty much every other activity a child might get involved in. And when we hear this complaint, we know that the problem isn’t so much the difficulty of the (usually new) activity, it’s the children’s assessment of their own ability to accomplish it well – that is, either to their own satisfaction, or to Dad’s or Mom’s satisfaction.
Where do Dads fit in?
We dads have a special responsibility to our children when it comes to self-esteem. Because our children look up to us and pay so much attention to everything we say and do (I’m talking about pre-schoolers, by the way, not high-schoolers!), we have a tremendous impact on their self-esteem, their sense of self-worth. Imagine the child who spills a glass of water, making a mess and breaking the glass, and her Dad yells at her, “What’s the matter with you?” How’s her self-esteem doing? On the other hand, imagine the child whose Dad gushes all over her no matter what little thing he did: “You tied your shoes all on your own!” is great for the week or so after little Johnny finally masters this task, but two years later, Dads, it’s getting a little stale – but now Johnny doesn’t know what praise is legitimate and what’s not. (A good approach with the spilled milk, by the way, is to get the necessary cleanup tools and work with her to clean it up, without yelling or remonstrance, and then to give her unbreakable drinking cups until she’s old enough to handle glassware.)
So what can Dads do?
Self-esteem should be permitted to grow. Plant the seed and nourish it, but don’t overdo or it’ll die. Too many Dads are too effusive with praise for the most trivial things, and insufficiently critical when their children make the mistakes that all kids make. This doesn’t help children’s self-esteem, it actually damages it.
If, on the other hand, your praise comes when your children have tried really hard, really put their heart into whatever it was they were trying to accomplish, they’ll value it and remember how to earn it.
Similarly, when your criticism is warranted, be careful not to crush your children. Remember, they’re fragile! Let your criticism be appropriate to their undertaking. A strikeout after three straight base hits, or a “B” instead of an “A,” are not crises, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Criticism should be constructive – something they can learn from. If they can’t learn from criticism – that is, if it’s sole effect is to make them feel bad, or perhaps to be reminded how much better Dad was when he was their age, it’s probably better just to keep your mouth shut.
Finally, don’t confuse praise with love. Just because you love your child is no reason to heap on the praise when it’s not deserved.
To wrap it up . . .
Our children look to us for the necessities of life – including self-esteem. Think of praise as food – nourishment for the spirit. We wouldn’t dream of starving our children, or of deliberately overfeeding them. Likewise, we shouldn’t withhold legitimate praise when it’s earned, and we shouldn’t overdo it, or give praise when it hasn’t been earned. If we can keep these simple rules in mind, our children should grow up happy, healthy, and with a good healthy dose of self-esteem.