How to nurture self-esteem in your child and why it's important
In this article, we look at how to nurture self-esteem in your child and why it’s important. Parents have many different approaches to raising children and these differences have been stereotyped with labels such as attachment parenting, helicopter parenting, free-range parenting, conscious parenting and even good-enough parenting.
Despite these differing philosophies, there is at least one thing that all parents have in common: they want their children to have good self-esteem. Why? Because children who develop a robust, healthy and life-supporting sense of self can go out in the world and live life to the fullest. Can you imagine any parent saying “I want my child to have poor self-esteem”?
Self-esteem and self-confidence are terms that are frequently used interchangeably. Unfortunately, far too often, parents’ conversations centre on their concerns about their children’s low self-esteem and low self-confidence, resulting in an ongoing search for ways to support their children to become confident, happy and enabled individuals. What many parents don’t realise is that self-esteem and self-confidence are not the same thing and that understanding the difference can be life changing, not just for children but for the whole family.
Michael Hall PhD has a doctorate in the cognitive behavioural sciences and is the author of more than 40 books. According to Hall, distinguishing self-esteem from self-confidence is “one of [the steps], if not the most important step, in parenting psychologically healthy children”. Given the general confusion about the definitions of self-esteem and self-confidence, take a moment to consider what these terms mean to you.
Did you find that self-esteem and self-confidence are hard to define and difficult to explain? Were your definitions similar? Were there any notable differences? Keep these ideas in mind as you read on.
Self-confidence is all about “doing”
Self-confidence is the more commonly understood term and relates to accomplishments, talents and abilities — it’s all about “doing”. Self-confidence refers to a person’s judgment about their abilities in relation to certain activities, tasks and experiences.
For example, children who’ve been riding a bike for many years will generally feel confident in relation to riding and their confidence is an accurate judgement of their actual ability. It makes sense then that the opposite should be true; that is, children who have little or no experience in riding a bike would have “low” self-confidence in this activity so that their actual ability and their judgment of their ability are aligned.
However, as many parents and children have discovered the hard way, children can be overconfident and make life choices that result in harm to themselves and others. That’s why it makes no sense to say as a general rule, goal or ideal that “all children should have high/good self-confidence”. A key role for parents is to help their children make realistic judgments about their abilities, to understand the relationship between these judgments and their actions in the world and the possible implications of their choices.
When children are young, parents can support them to develop values and life skills so that they can take risks, learn and have fun without putting themselves in serious harm’s way.
By the time our children become teens, it is critical that they have the life skills to make good decisions when exposed to alcohol, drugs and sex. Teens need to be able to have an internal sense of good and harm and accurately judge their abilities to navigate these potentially dangerous life experiences and know the alternative courses of action they can take and, most importantly, the consequences of their actions for themselves and others.
Beginning the education process as young as possible is ideal as the values and skills can be learned incrementally over time with less-dangerous life experiences. Moreover, younger children are generally more receptive to “parental guidance” and instruction than teens. The aim is to help children develop values and life skills that enable them to consider their actions and the implications of them before they carry them out so as to take a mindful, safe, caring and purposeful approach to life as far as possible in this chaotic, fast-paced world. Unreflective, overconfident teens are more likely to rush headlong into harm.
When children are young, parents can support them to develop values and life skills so that they can take risks, learn and have fun without putting themselves in serious harm’s way. Navigating this path, so as not to frighten children out of engaging in the world but enabling them to experience and grow, is not straightforward and requires parents to make judgments based on their intimate knowledge of their own child and, of course, on trial and error.
Little by little, as the child grows, the issues and life experiences they need to tackle become incrementally more complex. If parents share their beliefs and values consistently, lead by example and coach their children to stop, reflect and consider possible courses of action and the associated consequences rather than “telling” their children what to do and what not to do, this will help children become independent and socially responsible individuals who lead life in a reflective and purposeful way.
Self-esteem is all about “being”
While self-confidence relates to what people “do” in the world, self-esteem is all about “being” in the world. Michael Hall defines self-esteem as “a person’s innate value, worth, dignity, honour and lovability. It has nothing to do with what people can do, what they are good at or their talents, dispositions, gifts or achievements. Those facets define self-confidence”.
As a verb, “esteem” refers to an appraisal or judgment of something, so self-esteem is an appraisal of the self. Consider these questions:
- Do you have high or low self-esteem?
- Do you believe your child has high or low self-esteem?
Most importantly, reflect upon the criteria you used to make the above judgments about yourself and your child.
The key difference to note is that self-confidence is all about “doing” in the world and is conditional upon experience, skills and abilities. In contrast, self-esteem is unconditional as it is about “being”. This is where the confusion lies and how people entangle their self-esteem with self-confidence by judging themselves conditionally upon what they look like or their education, skills and abilities, achievements or even wealth. Is your self-esteem conditional? Did you consider any of these criteria when you were appraising yourself or your child?
Self-esteem is unconditional.
What that means is that every person — adult and child alike — has the right to good self-esteem. All individuals have innate worth, are worthy of love and are born with value, honour and dignity. Yet, if you’re like most people, perhaps you live your life based on conditional self-esteem. This means you do not see yourself as innately valuable but rather you believe you have to earn the right to be valued as a person.
In the context of parenting, if your children feel that they have to earn the right to be loved and valued by you, then they miss out on their innate right to be a valuable human being regardless of their looks, behaviours, abilities, talents or accomplishments.
It makes sense then that children who constantly feel the need to prove themselves in order to earn their parents’ love, attention and approval will feel insecure and have poor self-esteem. On the other hand, children who feel loved and valued, not conditional upon anything they have to do or achieve but simply because they “are”, will feel less pressure and stress and lead happier lives. Imagine what it would be like for a child to experience life knowing they are valued and loved unconditionally.
Conditional parenting can take many forms, but at the simplest level it relates to the praise/rewards and the criticism/punishments children experience as a result of their behaviours.
For example, “Good job!”, “Well done!”, “I’m so proud of you” or “Let’s have an ice-cream to celebrate your maths test marks” are examples of praise and rewards for good behaviour. In contrast, “Go to your room and think about what you did”, “There’ll be no dessert for you tonight — you didn’t eat your dinner”, “Why can’t you be more like Jack? He never misses a goal” or “I don’t even want to be around you when you act that way” are examples of criticism and punishments for unacceptable behaviour. Most parents would agree that children are generally showered with love and attention when they behave in a way that pleases adults and criticised or punished when they don’t. So you could forgive children if they form the belief: “I am only loved and valued if I am good/attractive/smart/successful/cooperative/compliant.”
Focus your attention on the whole child, including their reasons, thoughts and feelings, rather than only responding (praise or punishment) to the child’s behaviour.
You might be thinking, “I love my children unconditionally. Surely they know that.” In his book Unconditional Parenting Alfie Kohn explains, “How we feel about our kids isn’t as important as how they experience those feelings and how they regard the way we treat them.” Bearing this in mind, reflect on the typical interactions you have with your children. Do they experience many more interactions with you in relation to what they are doing (positive or negative) and far fewer interactions around simply being together? If so, might your children conclude that your attention, love and affection are conditional upon certain behaviours and they’re not loved just for being themselves?
Kohn summarises the outcomes of many years of research on conditional parenting. The findings suggest that while this approach appears to be effective with younger children in encouraging “good” behaviour and discouraging “bad” behaviour in the short term, in the long term, conditional parenting is detrimental for children on many levels. For example, it:
- Lowers a child’s self-esteem, perception of their overall worth and increases the tendency for depression
- Results in poorer overall emotional health and more misbehaviour
- Tends to an acceptance of self and others conditionally
- Can lead a child to construct a “false self” by pretending to be the kind of child their parents would love
- Elicits anxiety, fear of separation or abandonment and loss of parental love and security
- Focuses children’s behaviours on pleasing parents rather than doing acts of kindness for the right reasons, like care and consideration of others; eg, when sharing toys
- Can lead a child to feel rejected, and to resent and dislike their parents
Finally, children who are coerced into being “obedient” in the home (through rewards or punishment) rather than coached on making wise choices by considering their values and consequences, are more likely to follow others without question. As discussed above, this is a dangerous for teens experiencing peer pressure to take drugs, drink alcohol, steal or have sex.
It seems clear from this extensive list of detrimental outcomes that the potential long-term consequences of conditional parenting far outweigh the short-term benefits of having a compliant and obedient child. So what’s the alternative?
Based on a substantive body of research evidence, Kohn recommends parents take an unconditional approach to parenting. This doesn’t mean that parents should allow their children to do anything they want and “run wild” or that they should never praise their children. In line with Michael Hall, unconditional parenting is about helping children to develop good self-esteem and feel safe, loved and valued simply for who they are and not conditional upon their abilities, talents, achievements or behaviours. From this place, children are open to be coached and supported to develop the key life skills they need to thrive in the world.
Unfortunately, there is no one right way to parent and the unconditional approach to parenting is not available in an easy step-by-step three-part program you can download from the internet. However, Kohn offers some key principles to help parents learn more about this approach.
First, focus your attention on the whole child, including their reasons, thoughts and feelings, rather than only responding (praise or punishment) to the child’s behaviour.
Second, take a positive and balanced view of children and human nature. Seeing children as cunning and manipulative and “out to get” their parents is not supportive for seeing beyond the behaviour to the whole child. For example, rather than focusing on the child’s behaviour, consider whether this child is acting out because they feel scared/neglected/insecure or because they don’t have the knowledge or skills to cope with the situation and need some guidance.
Third, viewing parental love as “a privilege to be earned” reduces parenting to a transactional exchange: namely, when you’re well behaved, you’ll get love and rewards; when you behave poorly I’ll withdraw my love and you’ll be punished. In contrast, offering love freely, even when disciplining, provides children with a safe base to learn, explore and develop life skills.
Fourth, make time each day to spend uninterrupted, quality, one-on-one time with your child, even if it’s for only 10 minutes, where there is no TV, mobile phone, cooking, driving or any other multitasking activity. Inviting your child to suggest what they would like to do (for example talk, laugh, read, walk, play a game, kick a ball or listen to music) helps them feel valued and believe the time is really for them. This small gesture sends your child so many powerful positive messages as they see and experience that they are a priority — important, valued, listened to, cared for and a part of your life that you LOVE.
Finally, strategies that help parents to work with — and to problem-solve with — their children rather than control them using punishments and rewards supports children to grow into the loving, happy, balanced, independent, resilient, responsible, caring, capable and inspired adults all parents hope they will become.
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