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How to build self-esteem in your child

March 20, 2013

As parents, we want everything for our kids. We want them to be safe, happy and confident. We want them to believe in themselves and never give up. We want them to succeed and feel proud of themselves. We want them to have good self-esteem.

Self-esteem is one of those things that people talk about a lot. “Self-esteem is vital.” “She’s got a self esteem issue. “He’s got high self esteem.” Self-esteem is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a confidence and satisfaction in oneself.” Being confident and satisfied with yourself sounds great- certainly something I want for my child and something just about every parent would want for their child, I would imagine. But how do we go from wanting it to getting it, especially for our kids?

Recently, I read an article called “Praising Kids for Efforts, not Qualities, May Help Them Succeed.”  In it, researcher Elizabeth Gunderson talks about parents’ tendencies to praise their children in one of two ways, either focusing on what the child is doing, or on his or her own personal characteristics. One parent might say, “You’re working really hard on that” and another parent might say, “Good job.”  The research is indicating that specifically praising children’s efforts, rather than simply commenting that they are “great,” may positively influence the children’s abilities to be better able to handle challenging tasks and to decrease the likelihood of children become frustrated quickly when faced with tough tasks.

In my quest to build my own child’s self esteem, one of the things I’ve done a lot of is praise. I try to “catch my kid being good” as often as I can. Looking back, I think I’ve done a lot more of the “Great job!” and “Wonderful!” type praise than anything else. I do try to tell my son things like, “Wow, you are working really hard on that assignment,” too. I recognize and believe that these things can really make a difference in how he feels about himself. However, after reading the article, I felt like there was something missing, an important piece that did not get mentioned.

Thinking back on my own childhood, I remember one of the things that my mother excelled at was not necessarily that she gave a lot of praise, but how she delivered it. I remember her being very direct and present with the way she shared how she felt about me. There were times when she would stop, look at me right in the eyes, smile, and say, “Wow. You’re just the best. I love you.” It was, at times, a little intense and even embarrassing, but deep down, always made me feel loved, valued and appreciated. And she felt that way no matter how hard I worked on something, or how “great” I was at something.

By definition, this kind of praise that my mom did falls more under the praise that, according to the study, might not give the kids the skills they need to really believe that they can tackle a difficult task or have the perseverance to see it through. However, that kind of praise was really powerful for me, because I was being told, no matter what I did or said, she thought I was “the best.” I didn’t have to earn it or work for it. I was simply loved.

Those are the moments of “esteem building” that had the biggest impact on me. Looking back, I feel that those are the times when I felt that someone believed in me and felt that could do anything I set my mind to. All of this leads me to wonder, is it really about what we say, or is it more about HOW we say it?  Our kids need to know that we think that they are the most amazing, wonderful people in the world. And if we can link it to a specific task, skill, or performance (like the study that the article talks about suggests), then all the better.

However, it’s not just about the words we choose. It’s how we show our kids how we feel. It’s taking the moment to stop and really be present with your child. It’s about making eye contact and smiling warmly. It’s about patting them on the arm or giving them a hug. It’s about making sure that they know that they are loved, just as they are, and appreciated for all that they do.

How do you let your children know how you feel about them?  How do you praise them for the things they do well?