During a dinner with family a few days ago, my sister asked me, "What was the best gift you received as a child?". With the benefit of hindsight, I quickly realized that I had actually never gotten the gift that would have brought me the most long term happiness. How much easier my life would have been if one Christmas morning I had unwrapped a box and nestled inside were the seeds of self-esteem.
Self-esteem is the Kevlar vest we wear against the challenges of the world. The development of self-esteem begins at birth and continues until the day we die. It is an never-ending process that, unfortunately, entails both joy and sorrow. For parents, allowing their children to feel that sorrow is the hardest part.
How much easier it would be if self-esteem could be bought in a store or on e-bay. Unfortunately, there are no magic pills or vitamin supplements to hide in our children’s ring dings and chicken fingers. Booking a trip to Tibet in the hope of soliciting wisdom from the Dali Lama would be futile. In truth, we don’t need to do anything so extreme because there really is nothing complicated about instilling our children with good feelings about themselves. All we have to do is let them be kids.
How simple that sounds but how difficult that is to do. All moms and dads struggle with finding the right way to parent. We all know that love is the number one requirement for raising happy, healthy off spring. But, once we move beyond the obvious, the waters are murky.
The question we need to ask ourselves isn’t what should we do but, rather, what shouldn’t we do. The answer is really simple if we just step back and take an objective viewpoint for a minute. What we shouldn’t do is steal their childhood.
It’s hard not to pick up our children each time they fall down - physically or emotionally. It’s hard not to fill their heads with false praise. It’s really hard to let them find their own way in the world – bumps and bruises to knees and egos included. The truth is there will always be someone smarter, stronger, funnier, taller, thinner, more athletic, more agile, prettier, handsomer… No kid is perfect and we are doing major harm by saying otherwise.
Considering the state of our economy and the realization that only a small percentage of students will actually ascend to the highest rungs on the ladder of success, it is understandable that parents want to give their children every advantage possible. However, here is where “too much of a good thing” becomes detrimental to the overall well being of a child.
We cannot prepare our sons and daughters to face the real world by protecting them from it. Buffering our children from the reality that everyone fails at something some time instills a sense of failure because no one gets through this life without tasting the bitterness of defeat.
For many years now, the most prevalent demonstration of faux success has been the distribution of trophies to every player on every sports team at the end of the playing season – every player on both the winning and losing teams.
I’m not opposed to recognition. Take your son and/or daughter and their teammates out for pizza or burgers. Hold up your soda mugs and salute their efforts with a rousing, “Good job.” A pat on the back and a heartfelt, “You did your best. I’m proud of you,” is all the reward that is needed. Telling them they are all winners when they’re not is destructive.
When a child is part of a losing endeavor, the time is perfect to talk about the realities of life. Losing a game does not reflect negatively on a child unless we, the parents, show or verbalize disappointment in their performance. Losing allows for a discussion of actual capability versus dreams and desires. Being the best hitter on the high school baseball team does not guarantee being the best hitter on the college team or making it to the majors. Big fish/little pond. Little fish/Pacific Ocean. Losing is not a bad thing. Losing builds character. Parents make losing shameful. Shame on parents.
Kids are finely tuned to react to the words they hear. We must remember to praise our children not only for a job well done but also for the effort they applied. We must also remember to be truthful. False praise is detrimental in both the short and the long term.
Kids who know their strengths and weaknesses have an easier time handling conflicts and resisting negative pressures. They smile more readily and find greater enjoyment in life. Kids with high self-esteem are realistic and optimistic.
By contrast, kids with low self-esteem suffer from anxiety. They are frustrated by even the smallest challenge. Those who think poorly of themselves have difficulty problem solving. They are more inclined to think “I can’t” every time they are faced with a new situation.
I recently read about a school in Massachusetts where children in physical education classes jump rope without the benefit of ropes. The thinking is that no child should feel belittled by tripping or falling. Heaven forbid that they hear the laughter of other children or feel the burn of red-cheeked embarrassment.
Is it any wonder that experts in human resources view recent college graduates as egocentric, weak willed, soft hided and ill prepared for what lies ahead of them?
Here’s a suggestion from researchers in the field of child psychology. Let your kids feel bad sometimes. They will learn compassion. Let them fail so that when they succeed, they will be filled with a sense of pride they justly deserve.
Then, we can smile our biggest smiles and say loud enough for all to hear, “That’s my kid!”