Someone I don’t want to know has just revealed sordid personal details I did not need to hear. Not only do I know the sad story, so do millions of other viewers. A studio audience member stands and intones knowingly, "Honey, you need to get some self-esteem."
I scream and consider changing channels. (I don’t switch because I want to know how things come out, but I think about it really, really seriously.)
"Self-esteem" has become America’s buzzword. It’s thrown around on talk shows, in magazine articles, and at school as if it’s something you could order by catalog. ("Hey, my self-esteem came today! Now get out of my house you lying, cheating, scum-sucker!")
It’s just not that easy!
So if you can’t give your children self-esteem in a gift-wrapped box, how can you help them learn to love and respect themselves?
l) Don’t try to buy self-esteem.
Rewards, when handled appropriately, can be a big help in teaching a child. Unfortunately, they can also suck all the
self-esteem-building value out of anything.
You probably know parents who reward their children all the time for doing almost nothing. I once had a student who received six different-colored pairs of canvas high-tops in less than a month. Each time his parents were rewarding him for something relatively minor, like passing his spelling test (he could have made A’s!) or picking his clothes up off the bedroom floor. As you might guess, he was a demanding child who was always milking his parents for bigger and better rewards for doing less and less.
Misused rewards cheapen the value of what a child has done. The teacher who gives her students candy for every little thing they do takes the emphasis away from the value of learning and the satisfaction of a job done well. The parents of Shoe Boy taught him that schoolwork, doing chores, and the like were terrible things that a person would do only if bribed -- not things that had any use or could give him any satisfaction.
How do you use rewards effectively? Always keep in mind: a reward should be as intangible as it can be and still work. It’s surprising how much kids will do for rewards like praise, a special personal time with a parent, a chance to call Grandma and brag, and the like. (Try it!) When a child needs a tangible
reward -- and be very sure he does -- keep it as small as you can. (Often something like a sticker or a checkmark on a chart will do.) Always accompany the reward with comments about the value of the child’s behavior:
"That studying really paid off! You’re learning how to spell better and better!"
"You’ll be able to do your math more quickly now that you know your facts."
"Your room looks so neat! It makes it nice just to come in here and talk with you."
2) Make ‘em wait.
I tell my husband that I know I would be truly happy if only I had a refrigerator that made crushed ice. I sigh and say, "Then I would want for nothing."
I know that easy access to crushed ice will not give meaning to my life, but kids don’t understand things like that. They think that this toy, that video game, all those high-top sneakers are necessary to their happiness. They must go to the park, ride a rollercoaster, see Grandpa, or die! And whatever they want, they want it now!
Instant gratification is, well, gratifying, but only for an instant. The child who too often gets what he wants right when he wants it never really feels good about himself. How can he when all he does is futilely chase after that perfect toy, perfect place, perfect activity that will make him happy? The thrill of instant gratification lasts just a moment. True happiness will only come from things that are worth waiting for, like a job done well or following through on a difficult decision.
Loving parents can find it hard to say, "No," or even "Not now," but it’s actually good for kids to have to wait for what they want. Yes, you will buy them fast food again some day -- but not today. And maybe they’ll get that new video game later -- for their birthday. You’ll see how they like the red high-tops awhile before you spring for the blue ones.
And maybe in fifteen years, I’ll get a refrigerator that makes crushed ice!
3) Challenge them.
As a teacher, I had children bounce off the ceiling with joy at the prospect of an art project only to have them whining and quitting three minutes into it. I prodded, encouraged, insisted, urged, and pushed until they finished. When they did, they were so proud of their work. Week after week, we went through the same scenario before they began to understand the pride of working on something and carrying through till the end.
You see, real self-esteem cannot come from doing something too easy. I am not proud of how well I know my math facts --it’ll take more of a challenge than that for me to think highly of myself. And for your child to be proud of himself, he has to accomplish something challenging.
"Challenging" does not mean "frustrating." A challenge is making your child reach--just a little bit. For example, read aloud books that are just a little too hard for your child to read himself. Give him a model that’s just a little bit more complicated than the ones he’s been doing. Add just one more responsibility
to his weekly chores. (He does do chores, doesn’t he?) Challenges like these
keep him growing and learning and let him build real pride of accomplishment.
4) Teach respect.
If your child is going to respect himself, he has to know what respect is. He learns that by learning to respect others. In the olden days we showed respect with manners. We believed that everyone deserved to be treated with courtesy, especially parents.
From time to time, parents try to engage other adults in conversation. Their children, having an amazing radar that immediately tells them when they are no longer the center of attention, interrupt with vital information like "A leaf fell off that tree!" If corrected, these children can learn not to interrupt people who are talking. If not corrected, they will prevent their parents from having a decent adult conversation for the next twenty years.
Children aren’t born with a manners gene that makes them automatically respect the rights of others. They have to be taught that other people should be treated in a thoughtful way. We do not interrupt. We do not take what’s not ours. We do not insult. We do not hurt others. Teaching these lessons is a tough, dirty job!
On a trip to Eureka Springs, a little boy bopped me in the leg with some kind of stuffed critter on a stick. His mother had a perfect opportunity to teach him that we don’t hit people with our toys -- it is wrong. Her response: "Watch out! You’ll break your toy."
Of course, the kid did care more about his toy than some strange woman in a sunflower hat. His mother’s appeal to his natural selfish instincts probably
worked well enough that he didn’t bop anybody else all day. However, he also didn’t learn anything about respecting others because his mother didn’t....
5) Aim for a higher level of consciousness.
Just like you can’t make a seed grow, you can’t force a kid to mature. You have to work with kids as they are. However, you can help your child mature by keeping in mind that higher level of self-esteem you’re working for.
When your child is having a screaming-meemie fit in the store, all you can do is take him out. Later you can explain how you won’t let him act like that in the store because you know he’s a big boy and big boys don’t act that way. When he throws a toy, you may put it away awhile as punishment, but be sure to talk about how Mommy and Daddy work hard for the money that buys his toys and he must take care of them. When he hits a strange woman with a toy, you might keep him from doing it again by appealing to his own selfish interests, but you also might stop and apologize -- and insist that he do so, too.
Tie the higher moral lesson in with the action you take. At the moment, the kid might just be learning that kicking the dog gets him a time-out in a kitchen chair, but as you talk again and again (not meaning on and on!) about principles like not hurting others, he begins to understand. He learns what it means to be a moral and worthy person. When he does the right thing, he feels good about himself -- he builds his self-esteem. Not one based on bribes or instant gratification or easy accomplishments or any of his own selfish wants, but real self-esteem.