Extreme Esteem: Helping build self-esteem in children

“No one is perfect – that’s why pencils have erasers.”

Wolfgang Riebe, comedy magician

“I don’t understand. Why would she do this? Did she give you a reason?”

I was in the principal’s office at the elementary school discussing why my nine-year-old daughter had been drawing graffiti on the washroom walls. Nothing rude or obscene, just silly pictures and funny verses. Still, it was an offence that needed to be addressed. When her teacher asked why she did it, my daughter claimed it was my fault. I didn’t spend enough time with her. I was astounded. With five children and two jobs, time was short, but I had tried to do my best. What the principal said next was heartbreaking.

“Our counsellor feels your daughter is suffering from low self-esteem.”

Now I should point out this was many years ago — before I began my own journey of building self-esteem. I had always battled with low self-esteem, and it distressed me to realize I was sharing this grievous affliction with my children. I think all parents want their children to enjoy healthy self-esteem, but how can you give them what you don’t possess?

I was well acquainted with the symptoms of low self-esteem. As a child, I was unsure of myself and craved validation and acceptance. When neither was forthcoming, I withdrew or chose not to participate. I allowed others to treat me poorly. I had a difficult time standing up for myself and was bullied incessantly. I became a people-pleaser who avoided confrontation. When I was put down, pushed or judged, it took me a long time to recover from it. And though I was reluctant to admit it, I was beginning to see these same tendencies in my daughter.

In contrast, when children have good self-esteem, it sets them up to succeed. They do better in school. They enjoy more positive relationships. Feeling capable and confident, these children are quick to accept new challenges, aren’t afraid of being judged or making mistakes, take pride in a job well done and rebound much more quickly from mental or emotional setbacks.

Now, contrary to what you might believe, healthy self-esteem is not the result of telling your children they’re brilliant, beautiful or special, even though they may be in your estimation. Self-esteem grows when children feel capable, competent and accepted for who they are. So, what can you do as a parent to help your children develop and maintain healthy self-esteem?

Accept and love your children. Provide encouragement and support. When children feel accepted, appreciated and understood, they are more likely to accept and appreciate themselves. Praise a job well done but don’t overdo it. Acknowledging strengths is better than focusing on weaknesses.

Help your children learn to do things. Make it fun and interesting and acknowledge each milestone. Be patient. When children learn to do new things, they feel proud and capable.

Most importantly, be a good role model. I knew if I wanted my daughter — and other children — to have good self-esteem, I would need to work on building and sustaining my own. I’ve been working on it steadily ever since, and I think they’ve come to realize the effort is worthwhile. As with most things, building self-esteem is a journey, not a destination. Sharing my journey honestly and openly has prompted them to do the same.

“Let’s remember that our children’s spirits are more important than any material things,” wrote Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul. “When we do, self-esteem and love blossom.”

When I decided to focus on my self-esteem, my approach to parenting changed, too. I wanted each of my children to grow up feeling strong, capable and worthy of love, happiness and success and I think today – more so than not — we all can claim to feel that way.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His most recent book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca

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