Before a child can recognize valuable things in others, they need to see that they are valuable for who they are, not for what they have or what group they belong to. A secure child recognizes their own uniqueness and that opens the door to being able to recognize the uniqueness of others. A good starting point is by teaching our children how to first love themselves. This can be achieved by fostering in children pride in their culture and in their individual interests, thus, giving them a secure sense of who they are.
Healthy self-esteem arises from a person’s sense of competence and a sense of worthiness grounded in respect for basic human values (for example, honesty, integrity, care for others). Children develop healthy self-esteem when adults responsible for them show them respect and care and support their attempts to try new things. “A strong sense of worthiness prevents competence from becoming arrogance by keeping the individual focused on basic values, and competence prevents worthiness from becoming narcissism by requiring good feelings to be earned, not given” (Reasoner 2004). Children with healthy self-esteem find satisfaction in their own efforts without the constant need for adult approval.
Healthy self-esteem can be high, but high self-esteem is not necessarily healthy. When a child’s self-esteem gets way laid by arrogance and an inflated notion of what they can do, it is unhealthy and can lead to poor outcomes.
Lilian Katz (1993) writes about the pitfalls of aiming for high self-esteem without considering the risks of self-absorption in Self-Esteem and Narcissism: Implications for Practice. She describes worthwhile ways adults can support children’s self-esteem, including providing children with:
• an optimum mixture of acceptance, limits, and expectations concerning children’s behavior and effort;
• activities that encourage children’s curiosity about themselves and others;
• activities that support increased understanding and competence and opportunity to contribute to the work of the group;
• activities that offer children opportunities to make real decisions and contributions (as opposed to activities that are frivolous and cute);
• activities that provide children with real opportunities to become investigators of interesting topics; and
• opportunities to develop and apply criteria for evaluating their own work.
Attitudes and dispositions can all serve as tools to support healthy self-esteem. Children who believe they are competent will be open to new tasks and challenges and vice versa. Children who are confident will persist with challenging and interesting tasks. Confident children will be open to reflecting on and evaluating their own work.
Here are some tips for teaching children to love themselves, which may apply to adults as well:
• Think positive thoughts about yourself. A healthy self-image is when you think positive thoughts about yourself. A negative self-image is when you think negative thoughts about yourself.
• Say positive words about yourself. Don’t say negative things about yourself. Never say “You’re stupid” or “You’re ugly.” Oftentimes, words are more painful than a slap in the face. In our anger, we must be careful with our words because they may haunt your child for the rest of his life.
• Provide oppportunities for kids to help. Kids love to help others. By offering them opportunities to help makes them feel like they have something to offer the world. Involving your child in charitable work is a great way to make them feel good about themselves and others.
• Be generous with your smiles, hugs, touch, but avoid overpraising. Praising kids and showing them outwardly affection gives the message that you accept and appreciate them. They learn to recognize and value their own efforts and talents. However, overpraise creates pressure to be the “smartest, best, most wonderful kid ever,” a set-up for eventual failure. Too much praise, may also tend to distract children from the topics they are interested in and may develop in them a habit of showing interest in a topic just to receive flattery.
• Highlight your child’s strengths. Most children see themselves negatively—especially at school, when they are confronted with kids that are better than themselves. Find out your child’s strengths, reinforce these and take pride in them.
Finally, we should remember that parents and teachers have tremendous influence over their children’s or student’s development. Every comment or exchange, positive or negative, finds its way into a child’s self-assessment memory bank. Comments that support the child’s sense of competence are like deposits; negative experiences, withdrawals. No one expects only deposits, but there must be a healthy balance or the child’s self-perception “goes bankrupt.” Therefore, Children need their parent’s and teacher’s support in every area of their life. Reinforce and strengthen all of the good things they do with praise and confidence! More than anything, be proud of your child for who he is and what it means to be okay with themselves.
(Excerpts taken from “In Praise of Butterflies: Linking Self-Esteem and Learning,” in Beyond the Journal • Young Children on the Web • November 2006, by Harriet Egertson, PhD.)