The star baseball player, the most graceful girl in the ballet class, the child who consistently gets top marks at school – these kids are competent, right? They excel at what they do, they’re recognized by others as being capable and effective. They must have high self-esteem. Maybe….
Strong self-esteem requires two basic beliefs. There is the foundation: “I am lovable and valuable, just because I’m me”. This is the “feeling good” component of self-esteem. When we love our children, unconditionally, when we accept them and consistently look for ways to make them feel loved; we nurture that first fundamental belief. This was the topic of my Jan./Feb. article: “Does Your Child Feel Special?”
Feeling loved and special is not enough. Our children also need to believe “I am competent and worthwhile. I have something to offer others”. This is the other part of self-esteem, the “doing well” component. Both parts are necessary for a child to evaluate himself positively. When a child “feels good”, he will be primed to succeed. Every success, every time he “does well”, in turn reinforces those good feelings. As parents, or other important people in a child’s life, we can intervene and positively influence a child by encouraging either part of this process. In this article, I’ll focus on what we can do to encourage our child’s sense of competence.
Let us get back to the baseball superstar and the academic achiever. There just isn’t enough room at the top, so what if your child does not excel at anything? What if she will never earn great marks, win a race, or play an instrument? Of course, that’s the reality for most children. And yet, we know that children need to “do well” in order to feel competent and worthwhile. So, how do we help them to experience success?
Whether or not a child will evaluate himself as competent depends on how closely his expectations match with his results. And who has the most influence on those expectations? We do. As parents, coaches or teachers, we need to be realistic in setting standards for our children that are healthy for them. We need to encourage them to recognize their existing strengths and celebrate their development and increasing skills. If Dad longs for a great football player in the family but Johnny would rather watch it on TV, expecting athletic prowess would most certainly be damaging to Johnny’s sense of competence. Even if Johnny loves sports, his parents need to strike a balance between standards that offer a challenge and yet build in lots of room for success. Johnny may be a superstar by most standards, but if he is never able to reach the mark that he or others have set, he’ll never feel competent. By comparison, if a mediocre athlete like Susie has learned to challenge herself, but also to be pleased with small successes, she will likely feel much more capable and confident than Johnny.
We can set up our children for success in any number of ways. By giving them responsibilities appropriate to their interests and abilities, we can allow them to feel proud of their accomplishments. By watching and listening to them carefully, we can encourage those activities that they feel passionate about, and will therefore more likely engender success. This one can be tricky to handle. What if your child is a passionate and skilled Nintendo player, but you would prefer he succeeded in math or music. Balance is the key. Recognize that his sense of competence with the video games may be an important contributor to raising his self-esteem. (It may also be a highly valued social skill amongst ten-year-olds). However, you can still encourage competence in several other areas as well.
How we teach our children to deal with mistakes can also encourage the development of competence. If every mistake or setback is treated as an opportunity to learn, then there can be no failure. If children are harshly treated or criticized, they’ll be afraid to try again. If they are supported and encouraged to plan differently next time, or to fine-tune a needed skill, then mistakes can add to, rather than detract, from their growing sense of competence.
While we may unconditionally love our own children, the unfortunate truth is that the world may not. Especially as they grow older, our kids will be faced with expectations that are too difficult or unfair and they’ll have to deal with people who don’t value them “just as they are”. Peers very quickly become a hugely powerful influence on a child’s sense of competence and self-esteem. As parents, we need to respect that influence and be supportive of our children’s needs to “fit in”. It can be enormously frustrating to discover that your competent, talented child hates himself because he’s always picked last for the baseball games at recess. Or, your smart, musical, successful daughter starts to despise herself because boys haven’t yet approached her. It may be tempting to point out all their wonderful qualities, and tell them that “it is okay, I think you’re great”. But what more could you do? Those influences will not just go away; your child’s self-esteem may suffer.
Being competent is important, but even more important is being competent at the “right things”. Whether it’s basketball or soccer, dance or skating, music or computers, how is a parent to know where to direct their child’s energies? There are no easy answers. There is, however, one area of competence that is undeniably one of the best places to start teaching. That is social skills. A child who knows how to make and keep friends, who understands the workings of interpersonal relationships, who is able to approach others with confidence and uses good social problem-solving skills will be popular and successful. Being socially successful ensures a more satisfying experience for children at school or in any other pursuits. So, listen to your children’s concerns about friends, and do whatever you can to teach them the skills yourself, or find someone else to help them.
Pay attention to what’s important to children in your child’s age group. If all the boys do play baseball at recess, maybe it’s time to throw a ball around with your son in the backyard, so that he feels more confident in the schoolyard. Since being attractive to boys has become important to your daughter, don’t ignore her distress. Maybe it’s time to investigate what things she could do, or little changes she could make, to feel more attractive. Sometimes, as adults, we look upon the many “social crises” our children experience as being superficial or insignificant compared to their math marks. But, these are the elements of life that will have a profound impact on how our kids evaluate themselves.
Finally, remember that self-esteem, like any other quality we may strive for, is constantly undergoing change. A child’s development often seems like a roller-coaster ride, with gains made only to be followed by a downhill ride of setbacks. Every child will experience stages where their self-esteem is challenged. It is then that parents can actively look for ways to help their children develop and expand their sense of competence. Helping them to “do well” builds upon the foundation of loving and valuing them. These two components work together to build and maintain healthy self-esteem.