Your child’s self esteem – choosing your words carefully

Girl holding heart shaped light

Walking in the mall today, I overheard a mother shouting at her daughter – “How stupid are you? How many times do I have to tell you not to run through the mall? And then in the same breath -“and do up your shoes or I’ll cut the laces off.” Although I was not present to see or hear what preceded this barrage, I could guess that this was not the first time the daughter had been spoken to in such a manner. One thing I know for certain is that this type of communication between parent and child does little to motivate a child to please her mother. Furthermore, and even more importantly, it does nothing to promote self esteem in the child.

Self esteem, respecting and admiring or thinking well of oneself, is ultimately far more important than the way others see us. According to many experts; how successful we are, or will become, depends greatly upon whether we hold ourselves in high or low regard. In her book, Your Child’s Self Esteem, renowned authoress Dorothy Corkille Briggs writes that “self esteem is the mainspring that slates every child for success or failure as a human being.” she says that the kind of friends a child chooses to hang around with, the kind of person he or she marries and how productive he will be, are all a result of his level of self esteem.

Some adults are painfully aware of how different life might have been if only they’d have been more assertive or strong enough to stand up for what they believed in. Other adults feel secure in the decisions they have made along the way – they believe in what they have done. There is probably some truth that individual temperament determines to some extent how a person feels about himself. However, there is even more evidence of how strongly one’s self esteem as an adult is influenced by the way they felt and were treated as children.

Consider, for example, the tale of two children who live side by side. Johnny is encouraged by his parents to spread his own jam on his bread – “we know you can do it,” his parents remark. Johnny is responsible for making his own bed, remembering his lunch and for coming home on time after school. Johnny’s parents expect positive behaviour from him and he lives up to these expectations. Janey, next door, is told that she is not capable of spreading jam without messing. She is constantly reminded to take her lunch and usually dawdles on her way home from school. She doesn’t care. After all, her parents don’t expect much from her – so why try? Usually discouraged children, like Janey, develop low self esteem.

From the moment children are born, they are influenced by how others perceive them. As they grow, they begin to form their own beliefs. If they have not heard words of encouragement and believe that they can succeed, they are likely to be bogged down with self doubt and feelings of low self worth.

The first important step towards enhancing your child’s self esteem is to see him as a separate being -a unique individual capable of success at his own level. Always talk about personal best. How your child compares to his peers is not important. The amount of effort, interest and improvement in his own work is what really counts. What parents say to their children greatly influences the way a child feels about herself. “Boy, are you stupid. Can’t you figure it out after all the help I’ve given you,” or “You’re such a slowpoke. You must work really hard at being last in line all the time,” are obviously statements that can damage a child’s self esteem.

In an article by Teri Degler; author of Love, Limits and Consequences, for a newsletter put out by Scholastic Canada in the Spring of 1992, she writes that “in 1964, two psychologists, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, conducted an experiment that showed how closely self esteem and school success are linked. They designed a meaningless test, gave it a fancy name, and took it to an elementary school. The psychologists convinced the teachers and students that it was a revolutionary test that would predict children’s school success. After giving the test, they randomly picked several names and announced them as the top scorers. For a year, Rosenthal and Jacobson monitored these children’s progress and found that they all made far better grades than ever before. In the last two decades, other studies have proven that the reverse is also true; children who are convinced they’re stupid, or who believe they won’t succeed, tend to fall short of their potential. These studies clearly demonstrate that self-esteem is a factor in school success.”

Even a very young child can be encouraged every step of the way. An infant learning to walk may be told “that’s right, you’re getting it. I knew you could.” It doesn’t matter that the one year old understand all the words – just that they sense your belief in them.

Sandra Beech, popular children’s entertainer and National Self Esteem Ambassador for the Canadian Mental Health Association, strongly endorses a program put together by the C.M.H.A./ Durham Branch to help parents build self esteem in their children. The activity package for parents and their children, aged 4-12, is entitled “We’re all special.” It consists of an activity package and a parent’s guide book and is available at a cost of $15.00 plus $4.90 shipping and handling plus G.S.T. Write to “We’re all special (parents),” 88 Simcoe Street North, Oshawa, Ontario L1G 4S2.

Parents are best advised to learn more about the art of encouragement. The most important aspect to ensuring your child’s self esteem is to banish all put-downs such as “You’re just like me, you can’t do math,” and replace them with positive remarks such as “I can see you really enjoy learning. You must feel proud of yourself.”

Like the little steam engine who thought he could, and did, so is it essential for you to believe in your child and for him to believe in himself before he can be successful.