Six year-old Robert comes running in after school. It's a miserable, wet and muddy day. Just before he bursts into the room he stops suddenly to take off his dirty boots. "You're such a good boy", you exclaim. "Mommy loves it when you're so good."
Nine year-old Selina starts setting the table for dinner without a word of reminder. "Wow!" you say to her, "I'm so pleased with you. You're such a responsible young lady, I can always count on you."
Are these good ways to build child self-esteem? It may surprise you to know that your responses to their good deeds are likely to do just the opposite. And next time, you may not see this positive behavior from your child.
When we label our children they believe we only love them when we measure up. Robert learns you love him when he's good but what if he'd been so excited he'd forgotten to stop and take off his boots? Selina believes she has to constantly live up to the image of the responsible young lady and she's not sure she can do it. She knows that sometimes she's irresponsible. Will her Mom love her then?
Children need our unconditional love. We demonstrate that when we let them know we love them all the time, no matter what. We love them when they make mistakes, when they're sick and when they're covered with mud. We also love them when they're angelic and following the rules.
We need to label the behavior, not the person. Robert's Mom could have said; "You remembered to take off your boots, that's terrific." and Selina's Mom could have simply said; "Thanks for helping."
Rock Bottom Self Esteem
Children thrive when they feel secure and know that we love them simply for who and what they are. Eric is 10 years old. He has two younger sisters who are big, healthy girls. Eric, however, is a small boy who lacks the stamina of his younger siblings. He loves school, is an important member of the school chess club and has started debating. His father dreamed of having an athletic son and persists in pushing this boy into macho sports such as hockey and football. Eric not only hates those sports, he rarely gets to play because he hasn't had the skill or strength.
Although Eric is very successful at school his self-esteem is rock bottom because he knows he's letting down his Dad. Until his Father accepts him for who he is, not who he wishes he were, Eric is not going to thrive.
Kids need to feel secure. They know they can’t look after themselves, so they flounder when they are not sure who’s in charge. Knowing the rules and expectations give them guideposts that let them put their energy into growing up and feeling good about themselves. So rules matter. We tend to think that kids hate rules but it’s quite the opposite. The confusion comes because it’s our job to set the limits and it’s the job of kids to push against those very limits.
Emma and her little brother Logan were visiting friends with their parents. Emma got angry and tossed a toy at Logan. It bounced off his head and he started to howl. She ran out of the room with her mother in hot pursuit. She ended up in the bathroom where she proceeded to unravel the toilet paper roll and toss the ribbon of paper around the room. Her mother was frantically trying to talk to her. Mom called, “Emma, it’s okay, I only want to talk to you.” “Not talk Mom, please not talk!”, came the plaintive response from this little girl.
She wanted limits. She wanted to know where she stands. She was tired of all the talking. Her mother had been explaining, understanding and compromising with her for her whole life and she was like a boat at sea with no lifeboat. Her self-esteem was low because she had to put all her energy into trying to figure out if there were any rules, any expectations, anything she could count on.
Because she had no way of really measuring her worth, she couldn’t feel good about herself. Emma wanted her Mom to be clear. To say, “that was unacceptable. We need to go home right now. It is never okay for you to hurt Logan or anyone else. So you won’t be able to play with your brother until you show that you can be with him and not hurt him. “
Robert, Selina, Eric and Emma all have parents who love them. They need parents who also accept them for who and what they are. Love is a necessary starting place. Acceptance, unconditional love, rules, limits and clear expectations add to the mix to build child self-esteem.