When parents and teachers of young children talk about the need for good self-esteem, they usually mean that children should have "good feelings" about themselves. With young children, self-esteem refers to the extent to which they expect to be accepted and valued by the adults and peers who are important to them.
Children with a healthy sense of self-esteem feel that the important adults in their lives accept them, care about them, and would go out of their way to ensure that they are safe and well. They feel that those adults would be upset if anything happened to them and would miss them if they were separated. Children with low self-esteem, on the other hand, feel that the important adults and peers in their lives do not accept them, do not care about them very much, and would not go out of their way to ensure their safety and well-being.
During their early years, young children's self-esteem is based largely on their perceptions of how the important adults in their lives judge them. The extent to which children believe they have the characteristics valued by the important adults and peers in their lives figures greatly in the development of self-esteem. For example, in families and communities that value athletic ability highly, children whom excel in athletics are likely to have a high level of self-esteem, whereas children who are less athletic or who are criticized as being physically inept or clumsy are likely to suffer from low self-esteem.
Families, communities, and ethnic and cultural groups vary in the criteria on which self-esteem is based. For example, some groups may emphasize physical appearance, and some may evaluate boys and girls differently. Stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are also factors that may contribute to low self-esteem among children.
How Can We Help Children Develop a Healthy Sense of Self-Esteem?
The foundations of self-esteem are laid early in life when infants develop attachments with the adults who are responsible for them. When adults readily respond to their cries and smiles, babies learn to feel loved and valued. Children come to feel loved and accepted by being loved and accepted by people they look up to. As young children learn to trust their parents and others who care for them to satisfy their basic needs, they gradually feel wanted, valued, and loved.
Self-esteem is also related to children's feelings of belonging to a group and being able to adequately function in their group. When toddlers become preschoolers, for example, they are expected to control their impulses and adopt the rules of the family and community in which they are growing. Successfully adjusting to these groups helps to strengthen feelings of belonging to them.
One point to make is that young children are unlikely to have their self-esteem strengthened from excessive praise or flattery. On the contrary, it may raise some doubts in children; many children can see through flattery and may even dismiss an adult who heaps on praise as a poor source of support--one who is not very believable.
The following points may be helpful in strengthening and supporting a healthy sense of self-esteem in your child:
As they grow, children become increasingly sensitive to the evaluations of their peers. Parents and teachers can help children learn to build healthy relationships with his or her peers.
When children develop stronger ties with their peers in school or around the neighborhood, they may begin to evaluate themselves differently from the way they were taught at home. You can help your children by being clear about your own values and keeping the lines of communication open about experiences outside the classroom.
Children do not acquire self-esteem at once nor do they always feel good about themselves in every situation. A child may feel self-confident and accepted at home but not around the neighborhood or in a preschool class. Furthermore, as children interact with their peers or learn to function in school or some other place, they may feel accepted and liked one moment and feel different the next. You can help in these instances by reassuring your child that you support and accept him or her even while others do not.
A child's sense of self-worth is more likely to deepen when adults respond to the child's interests and efforts with appreciation rather than just praise. For example, if your child shows interest in something you are doing, you might include the child in the activity. Or if the child shows interest in an animal in the garden, you might help the child find more information about it. In this way, you respond positively to your child's interest by treating it seriously. Flattery and praise, on the contrary, distract children from the topics they are interested in. Children may develop a habit of showing interest in a topic just to receive flattery.
Young children are more likely to benefit from tasks and activities that offer a real challenge than from those that are merely frivolous or fun. For example, you can involve your child in chores around the house, such as preparing meals or caring for pets that stretch his or her abilities and give your child a sense of accomplishment.
Self-esteem is most likely to be fostered when children are esteemed by the adults who are important to them. To esteem children means to treat them respectfully, ask their views and opinions, take their views and opinions seriously, and give them meaningful and realistic feedback.
You can help your child develop and maintain healthy self-esteem by helping him or her cope with defeats, rather than emphasizing constant successes and triumphs. During times of disappointment or crisis, your child's weakened self-esteem can be strengthened when you let the child know that your love and support remain unchanged. When the crisis has passed, you can help your child reflect on what went wrong. The next time a crisis occurs, your child can use the knowledge gained from overcoming past difficulties to help cope with a new crisis. A child's sense of self-worth and self-confidence is not likely to deepen when adults deny that life has its ups and downs.
Factors Affecting Children's Self-Esteem:
How much the child feels wanted, appreciated and loved
How your child sees himself, often built from what parents and those close say
His or her sense of achievement
How the child relates to others
Your Child's Self-Esteem Can be Increased by You:
Appreciating your child
Telling your child that you love them
Spending time with your child
Encouraging your child to make choices
Fostering independence in your children
Giving genuine importance to your child's opinion and listening
Taking the time to explain reasons
Feeding your child with positive encouragement
Encouraging your child to try new and challenging activities
Appreciating Your Child
A child's self-esteem will suffer if he or she is not appreciated. Children know if you are sincere or not. If you spend time together, you must enjoy it or there is no point. Show appreciation at all times. Tell your child you like him or her - this is appreciation. Thanking a child when he does something good is reward enough. Children like to please.
Esteem is boosted with your encouragement. Encourage decision-making; this will lead to a feeling of confidence and independence.
Self-esteem comes from what you think about yourself; praise is external. I do not agree entirely with some who say praise creates kids addicted to it and then needing praise to feel good. Encouragement is better than praise. I was often told, "could do better" and this led me to feel no matter what I did, it would not be good enough to please others.
Children's self-esteem will be higher if you treat him or her seriously and with respect. Explain to the child everything and treat him as an intelligent individual able to understand and reach conclusions. You want to be treated like this and children are no different. A child who is belittled, patronized or put down will suffer lack of confidence. Mutual respect will foster trust and confidence.
Dealing with Failure
If the child fails he must not feel a failure. Teach a child failure doesn't exist, but he may have only temporary setbacks on the road to success. Never tell a child he has failed, let you down or cannot succeed. Be a mentor and help the child to believe in his or her ability to succeed no matter how long it takes!
Developing a Positive-Identity: Teaching Strategies
Help children make the transition from home to school.
Support children during separations until they are confident they can handle them on their own.
Acknowledge and accept children’s feelings about being apart from family members
Encourage family members to stay as long as they are able while children settle in. Help parents support children’s feelings at these times.
Allow children to enter or reenter classroom activities at their own pace.
Be alert to signs of separation anxiety throughout the day; reassure children that they are valued members of their families and the classroom and that who they are and their well being are important to all the adults who care for them.
Suggest to parents that children may benefit from having a family picture to carry around with them.
Focus primarily on children throughout the day.
Spend most of your time attending to children and what they are doing, rather than doing classroom chores or interacting with other adults.
Interact with children in calm and respectful tones.
Address your comments directly to children rather than talking “about” children as if they were not there.
Address diversity and differences positively.
Answer children’s questions forthrightly about the differences they observe, using a normal, conversational voice.
Supply identity labels, and use them in respectful ways.
Talk with children about differences in gender, skin color, religious observances, family composition, and so forth in a tone that is accepting and factual, not judgmental.
Talk about differences between people in the same way you converse about the attributes of objects or events that interest children.
Provide non-stereotyped materials, activities, and role models.
Read picture books showing women as non-traditional professionals and men doing housework and nurturing children; provide clothes or props for children of both sexes to role-play different occupations, and encourage children to work with all types of equipment.
Look for book and magazine photos that show elderly people and those with disabilities involved in a variety of activities that young and able-bodied people do; talk about the accommodations that disabled people may need to make for some activities but how they still carry out and enjoy them.
Encourage family members to become involved in the program.
Don’t limit invitations and participation to mothers – include fathers, grandparents, and other regular caregivers, as well as siblings when appropriate.
Provide many options so family members can choose a type and level of participation that suits them. Where feasible, provide transportation and child care to enable families to participate in program activities.
Establish ties with the community.
Establish relationships with community members who can contribute time and caring directly to children; for example, artists, trades people, business owners, tribal leaders, elders and senior citizens.
See if community members can host visits at their workplace or interact with children in the classroom; talk to them ahead of time about things likely to interest children and how to make these exchanges interactive.