By Susan Kurlander, M. Ed.
We all know the importance of self-esteem. Without it, we fear children will make unhealthy decisions, shy away from learning and trying new things, and never reach their maximum potential.
Now more than ever, with children spending much of their day on their own, it’s essential that they learn to tap into internal resources to gain the coping skills necessary to help them feel good about themselves.
How do we try to encourage self-esteem? For many of us, we praise our children whenever possible. We also tend to minimize situations that might cause negative feelings that diminish how they feel about themselves. Often, we are the ones trying to protect our child’s feelings.
As parents, we always want to be supportive and therefore use any opportunity to help our children feel good about themselves. How much more valuable and impactful can it be, however, when a child looks inside himself to recognize his own self-worth? Self-esteem can determine how we approach life, both its positives and its setbacks, at any age. Helping our child develop the coping skills to be resilient in the throes of challenging situations is a key to building self-esteem. If a child grows up relying solely on what others say to and about him, he may struggle with maintaining his self-esteem when no one else is around.
It’s a given that we don’t want our children to hurt or be hurt by others. But are we doing them a disservice by stepping in to eradicate the problems they are facing, by ignoring their ability to handle difficult situations? Are we being respectful of their potential growth by immediately fixing what we perceive as being wrong for them, or removing them from a situation that is painful? If we do these things even with the best of intentions, will our child feel equipped to reach inside himself for solutions?
One of the prevention education programs offered by Jewish Community Services encourages children to look inside themselves to recognize what makes them valuable, valued and worthy. In other words, what will provide them with the self-esteem needed to grow and realize their potential. “You Matter, Too!” is based on the book Zero by Kathryn Otoshi. Geared to children in grades 1 – 3, “You Matter, Too” helps children look inward to find their value and discover that, like everyone else, they matter.
For parents, here are some other ways to encourage self-esteem in your children:
- When praising or criticizing your child, refer to the behavior not the child. Instead of saying, “You are such a good little boy” say “I like the way you cleaned up your toys.”
- Guide your children. Be there to help them acknowledge, direct and redirect their energy and to understand and express their feelings. Keep a list of “feeling words” such as frustrated, patient, eager, lonely, etc. on the refrigerator to help your child do this. This may also encourage your children to acknowledge the feelings of others
- Every child is good at something. If your child is not athletic, place him/her in competitive activities where skills other than physical ones are recognized. Even if your child doesn’t excel, allow him/her to participate and enjoy the experience.
- Remember that you are separate from your children. Let go of the responsibility for all of your children’s feelings or the outcomes of their decisions. We may want to encourage the successes and discourage the failures, but their successes or failures are theirs, not yours
According to Maimonides, the highest form of tzedekah is to help someone learn a trade or skill so they can sustain themselves on their own. This doesn’t mean that our children won’t need our help and guidance to sustain themselves, but it does mean that they will have a far greater chance of growing into functioning adults if they can look inside themselves for the self-esteem necessary to appreciate the “ups” and bounce back from the “downs.”
It always feels good to hear someone else praise us, to point out how valuable and valued we are. How much more important it is, however, to learn our own self- worth and truly believe in who we are and what we can accomplish.
Susan Kurlander, M. Ed., is a Health Educator at Jewish Community Services.
JCS is a comprehensive human services organization providing a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.