One of the concepts that concerns practically all parents who consult with me is self-esteem. If only little David had more self-esteem, he wouldn’t
(a) beat up all of the other children in his class
(b) do so poorly in school
(c) be friendless
(d) be defiant
Yes, and a whole lot of other things.

So what parents want is the answer to this question: how do I give my child self-esteem? Some parents tell me that they have been careful never to criticize their child. Others have said that they praise whatever the child does. They are dismayed that all of this has not led to increased self-esteem in their child.

I have a twofold answer to this conundrum. First, it is not poor self-esteem that creates anti-social behavior. In fact, studies have shown that many convicted criminals have very high self-esteem—so high, in fact, that they consider their judgments of right and wrong as more valid than those of society. Low self-esteem is not the reason for a child’s negative behaviors. It may be his reason for feeling sad or frustrated, but certainly not for disruptive behavior.

Second, self-esteem cannot be conferred upon someone else. It is something that results from one’s own actions. Imagine feeling really bad- inadequate, useless. If your best friend said, “no, you are not inadequate; you are wonderful” would it really make you change your mind? Would your negative feelings really go away? If you have done a poor job, skipped steps, left things undone, will praise make you feel as if you did a good job?

All of us feel inadequate and useless when we have not contributed in any way to our surroundings. Take the person who is at home raising children. If he or she looks around the home and sees all sorts of unfinished projects, dirty laundry, unwashed floors and then spends the day just keeping up with the children, at the end of the day he or she will feel frustrated and upset. If he or she makes a stab at getting something- anything- done, then he or she will feel better.

The same is true of a worker whose company is not making use of his or her talents. Sure, the money is still there at the end of the month, but as the days go by and he or she feels as if nothing has been accomplished, he or she will feel useless.

What is the answer to the self-esteem question? Self-esteem is gained by doing things that are useful, helpful, kind, caring. When we do these sorts of things, we feel better. We look at what we have done with a feeling of accomplishment or pride. We don’t need others to praise us because we know that what we have done is worthwhile. Sure, praise is great, but if it isn’t based on some sort of effort or accomplishment, it is meaningless.

A child who scribbles a drawing is not going to believe you when you say it is wonderful. As someone once said of children, “they’re short, but their not stupid.” If a child has worked hard at something and receives praise for it, the praise is regarded as legitimate and the child’s self-esteem is enhanced.

In building a family, it is important for all the members of the family to feel that they are contributing members of the family. That is why it is important to give children chores around the house when they are still small. At the earliest stages, children can be taught to care for their own things. They can be taught to put away their toys and to throw their laundry in the hamper. As they get older, they can be taught to fold napkins, set the table and to clear it. I still can picture one of my sons standing on a stool in front of the sink at about 5 years old with his hands full of soap suds and a big grin on his face. It only took him a short time to learn to do a really excellent job washing dishes. Vacuuming, dusting, folding laundry all are activities that children can be taught that allow them to be valued members of the household.

Caring activities also build self-esteem. Caring for plants and pets also helps a person to feel a sense of purpose. Helping parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors makes children feel important. Giving to others makes it easier to receive.

A friend and mentor of mine, Sol Gordon, talks about “mitzvah therapy” for depressed people. He points out that if you do good deeds that you will feel useful, that others will be happy to see you, and that your life will take on meaning.

Self-esteem isn’t something you can give to your children, but you can present them with opportunities so that they can create it for themselves.

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  1. Very interesting! I specifically identify with the example of “a worker whose company is not making use of his or her talents”… 🙂

  2. Nelly Alcala de Fielding says

    I have taught high school students here in the USA for twelve years. Too many have an artificially high self estimation because their parents have brought them up to believe they are stars. Most of these children have a difficult time functioning as responsible young people because their parents have failed miserably to instill in them a work ethic. There are kids who think that they are too noble to do something as mundane as picking up a dropped piece of paper. Yet true nobility carries a sense of serving. Tell them, Rona!

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