Role of Adults in Bolstering a Child’s Self-Esteem
The proper aim of parental nurturing is to prepare a child for independent survival as an adult. An infant is born in a condition of total dependency. If his or her upbringing is successful, the young man or woman will have evolved out of that dependency into a self-respecting and self-responsible human being capable of surmounting the obstacles placed in front of them.
Childhood experiences often influence how much self-esteem an individual will possess later in life. Adults who bolster a child’s sense of worth, who avoid physical and mental abuse, and who relate lovingly, respectfully and with belief in the child’s competence can make the child’s path to healthy self-esteem easier (if not inevitable). Adults who behave in an opposite fashion can make a child’s path to healthy self-esteem far more treacherous.
The following is an account of some of the behaviors and actions an effective parent displays:
Basic Safety and Security
Because children begin life in a state of total dependency, there is no more basic requirement – as far as parental behavior is concerned – than that of safety and security. If a child is to learn that life is not malevolent and other people can be trusted, the foundation is laid early on.
Children who grow up in a state of terror find it difficult to not have their growth stunted by their traumatic childhood. The source might be a physically violent father or an unpredictable, emotionally disturbed mother, but it is certain to plunge the child time and again into an unbearable feeling of helplessness.
The greater a child’s terror, and the earlier it is experienced, the harder it becomes to develop a strong and healthy sense of self.
Nurturing Through Touch
Touch is essential to the healthy development of a child. In its absence, children can die even when ostensibly more important needs are met. Through touch we send sensory stimulation that helps an infant’s brain develop. Through touch we convey love and establish human connections.
One of the most powerful ways parents can convey love is through touch. Long before a child can understand words, he or she understands touch. Declarations of love without touch are unconvincing and hollow.
Children who grow up with little experience of being touched often carry an ache deep within them that never entirely vanishes. They wonder why their parents shied away from physical contact, why their parents didn’t love them enough to want to hold them. They feel unworthy of being loved, and question whether anyone else would ever want to touch them if their own parents didn’t.
A child who is treated with love tends to internalize the feeling and reflect it upon him- or herself. Parents convey love to their children through verbal expression, nurturing actions and by demonstrating joy and pleasure in the child’s existence.
An effective parent can convey anger or disappointment without signaling withdrawal of love. An effective parent can teach without resorting to criticism. At no time should the value of the child as an individual be put on trial.
Love is not felt to be real when it is always pegged to performance, and meeting the expectations set for us. Love is not felt to be real when the child receives cues, subtle or not, that they are “not enough”. Unfortunately, many of us received messages similar to this as children. We may have had potential, but we were unacceptable in our current state. We needed to be fixed, if only to someday meet the expectations of our parents.
No one can build self-esteem on a foundation of “I am not enough.” To convey this to a child is to subvert self-esteem at its core.
Growing up devoid of external love can severely hamper an individual’s ability to love their self.
A cautionary note to parents: be careful what you say to your children. They may come to agree with you. Before calling your child “stupid” or “disappointing,” ask yourself whether that is how you want them to perceive themselves.
A child whose thoughts and feelings are treated with acceptance tends to internalize the response and to learn self-acceptance. Acceptance is conveyed, not by agreement (which is not always possible) but by listening to and acknowledging the child’s thoughts and feelings, and by not chastising, arguing, lecturing, psychologizing or insulting.
Children who are treated with respect by adults tend to learn self-respect. Without a healthy level of self-respect, self-esteem becomes even harder to attain.
There is no doubt that children require nurturing. What is sometimes less evident is the need for age-appropriate nurturing. Some forms of nurturing that are appropriate for a three-month old infant would clearly be infantilizing to a six-year-old child. An infant is dressed by an adult; a six-year-old is responsible for dressing him- or herself.
By that same token, some forms of nurturing that are appropriate for a six-year-old would subvert growth toward autonomy in a sixteen-year-old. When a six-year-old asks a question, it may be nurturing to take the question seriously and answer it. When a teenager asks a question it may be nurturing to draw out his or her own thoughts on the subject or recommend a book to read or a library to go to for research.
Praise and Criticism
Some loving, well-intentioned parents, determined to boost their child’s self-esteem, believe that the best way to accomplish this is with praise. But inappropriate praise can be as detrimental to a child’s self-esteem as inappropriate criticism.
Global, indiscriminate and extravagant praise is not the surest route to healthy self-esteem. At best, it does not work. At worst, it can backfire. Because the praise is given without merit, the child feels invisible. In addition, this policy tends to produce “approval addicts” – children who cannot take a step without looking for praise and who feel disvalued if it is not forthcoming. Many devoted parents – with the best intentions in the world but without the appropriate skills or restraint – have turned their children into approval addicts by saturating the home environment with their “loving” evaluations.
When we express our pleasure in and appreciation of a child’s questions or observations or thoughtfulness, we are encouraging the exercise of consciousness. When we respond positively and respectfully to a child’s efforts at self-expression, we encourage self-assertiveness. When we acknowledge and show appreciation for a child’s honesty, we encourage integrity. Catch a child doing something right and convey pleasure at the sight of it. Trust the child to draw the appropriate conclusions.
No good purpose is ever served by assaulting a child’s self-esteem. This is the first rule of effective criticism. We do not inspire better behavior by impugning a child’s worth, intelligence, morality, character, intentions or psychology. No one was ever made “good” by being told he or she was “bad.”