As parents, as soon as we discover that we are expecting, our only wish is that our baby is born healthy and without any complications. My husband and I used to hope for a ’full-term, happy, healthy baby’ at every possible opportunity. That was all that mattered.
But it takes more than eating healthy and prayer to raise confident and emotionally secure children. For all of us, self-esteem comes from feeling like we have a sense of belonging, that we are capable and competent, and that knowing our contributions are worthwhile and valued by others.
From an extremely early age, it is our responsibility to help our children build this confidence.
As caregivers, when our children are little, we are in charge of their every need. It is our responsibility, but also our pleasure to house, feed, clothe and love them.
As our children get older, we hope they are confident enough to set goals for themselves and strive to go after their dreams. We also pray that they find completion within themselves without having to be dependent long-term on others to meet their needs.
So how can parents help their children build self esteem?
Give unconditional love by also teaching limits – From the moment our children are born, they need unconditional love. Regardless of their strengths, weaknesses or struggles, children need to know that their primary caregivers have ‘their back’, no matter what. But children also thrive when they have structure. Even though they will resist limit setting at every opportunity, clear and consistent limits help establish security. They know what to expect, what behavior is acceptable, and what they can and cannot get away with.
When our children make mistakes or act out, let them know that it is not them but rather their behavior that is not acceptable.
Support healthy risks by allowing children to make mistakes - Although extremely difficult for parents to do, parents must allow their children to stumble and make mistakes. We all learn through our experiences. Although there is always the possibility of failure, children will learn that without taking risks, there is little opportunity to succeed.
Similarly, children need to see their parents acknowledging when they too make mistakes. Use these mistakes as a learning experience, and discuss with your children how to avoid them in the future. It is okay for children to see their parents as imperfect, and will enable them to accept their own shortcomings.
Do not rescue your children. Self-esteem can be learned by resisting our need to protect our children and allowing them to tackle new things on their own.
Accentuate the positive and ongoing encouragement – Everyone, even adults, respond well to encouragement. Make sure your children hear you speaking positively about them. Children rely on their parents’ approval, even if they are too proud to admit it.
Even small achievements should be recognized. Children thrive on being told they did a good job on something, even if the task was a menial one. Try to be as specific as possible. So after your 5 year-old ‘chops’ the salad for dinner with her plastic knife, rather than merely saying, ‘good job,’ be specific and recognize how delicious the salad tasted and how pretty it looked all cut up in the bowl.
This type of encouragement will engage your children and increase their sense of accomplishment. Children need to be signaled that their parents believe in them even during times of struggle – not only during times of achievement. Providing encouragement acknowledges the effort even if the outcome was not a successful one.
Actively listen and pay attention – The art of ‘active listening’ is a skill that takes a long time to perfect, but is excellent in helping us really communicate with our loved ones. If children are trying to communicate with you, pay attention. Stop what you sure doing, eliminate all distractions, and make eye contact with them. Everyone’s thoughts and feelings matter. Children need to know that they are being taken seriously. By actively listening, parents are able to paraphrase what their children communicate without judgment. Our goal is to help our children have confidence in expressing themselves without the fear that they will somehow be judged or scrutinized.
Avoid comparisons – It is very common in times of frustration for parents to openly make comparisons between their children. Although seemingly innocent, this action can be extremely damaging. Children need to know that they are appreciated for their uniqueness, independent of the strengths and weaknesses of their siblings.
By knowing others value them for who they are, they can learn to value themselves as well.
It seems that as parents, our job of providing empathy and support to our children is a life long one. As our children grow up and resist the urge to receive compliments, or tell us we are embarrassing them by providing too much praise, deep down we know our motive is to build their confidence. And they know it too. So let them rant and rave about it. We know we will never be accused of being too nice or too supportive or too good for their self-esteem.
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