Self Esteem has certainly been the buzz word that we as a society have strived to achieve for our children, in the last 20-30 years. And it certainly is a noble goal. We want our children to be healthy, well-adjusted individuals who are able to capably and confidently negotiate the many demands of life as well as be contributing members of society.
Generally, we have been told to create experiences in which our children will experience success and a feeling of competence and for which they can be justly praised. We have even been taught how to praise them, praise the action and not the person. While all of this is sound and reputable advice, it bypasses some fundamental issues that are the true precursors to self- esteem.
The mistake that we make is not recognizing the role that adversity plays in the building of the character of the child. Adversity is a fact of life and children that develop competence in their ability to confront it without being crushed, are the true possessors of self- esteem. Feeling that one can cope with difficulties, hardships and the curveballs that life flings, and that one can bounce back with renewed hope and alacrity are the true sign of self- esteem.
The trap that we fall into is trying to shield our children from upset, from difficulty and from hurtful experiences. We can’t and shouldn’t protect (excluding real dangers and harmful negative influences) our children from these disappointing circumstances, but rather give them appropriate coping skills when adversity strikes.
The most powerful coping strategies that we can give our children, are having them witness how we cope with the disappointing events in our life that we encounter on a daily basis.
How do we cope when the dishwasher fails, when we inadvertently cause a fender bender or we are snubbed by a relative or acquaintance? Our actions speak louder than words and we have to look at our reactions to circumstance before we expect our children’s to improve.
But all is not lost even if we do fail. If our initial actions were not ones to be proud of, it is a powerful lesson when our children witness our recovery, and later our repair and resilience.
Let’s say our children see us lose our tempers towards a friend or a loved one in a weak moment of anger. How powerful it is when we then show strong character and are the first ones to make amends? This is an experience that builds self- esteem, knowing that we can make mistakes and then right them with character.
We are the strongest influence in our children’s lives and we can be a sounding board and a guide for when our children do face difficult situations. Instead of being outraged when we hear that our child may have been slighted by a teacher or classmate, speak to your child and find out the true details and then work with your child to find a peaceful solution. When bruised egos and emotional outbursts are worked through instead of escalated, our children become filled with confidence that they have strategies to cope with disappointments and hurtful situations.
A Case in Point
One of my children once had a child that jumped on top of him in a moment of anger. This broke my child’s arm and caused considerable inconvenience to my child and our family. In our litigious society, it would have been easy to file a lawsuit against the school (that should have adequate supervision to prevent this) and the parents (whose child acted without thinking). However it was not worth the precedent that this would have set for my child.
It would have taught him that when slighted or wronged, one must seek revenge and the entitled reparation rather than see the situation for what it was. A silly act by an immature child that could have easily happened in my own basement when friends’ play gets a little wild as it could have happened in school. I cannot say that this child’s easy going and loyal character today is a result of this isolated incident, but I can say that he did learn that revenge and animosity is not the only strategy to be used when someone is slighted.
If we could replace the concept of building self-esteem with the molding of character, our children’s self- esteem would inevitably soar. It is not the shielding of pain that swells our children’s self-esteem and self- image but rather the many experiences that have allowed him to flex and strengthen the coping muscles that add to his certainty that he can indeed cope and excel through the many challenges that life brings.
Herein lays the challenge of a parent, to model, listen and guide our children, so that they can respond with resilience to whatever life may bring.