When children are small, they learn the ABCs. They’re happy to sing them in the bathtub, in the car and while they’re eating their cereal. But according to Dr. Kevin Leman, the ABCs are for parents, too — ABCs that build healthy self-esteem in your child.
According to Leman, author of Have a New Kid by Friday, healthy self-esteem is cultivated in children through Acceptance, Belonging and Competence.
Some parents who are turned off by their child’s choice of music or clothes send a message to their children that not only is their child’s behavior unacceptable, but that they are unacceptable. As a result, their child spends hours listening to their music, playing computer games or talking on the phone. Why? Because if a child doesn’t feel accepted by their parents, they’ll look for acceptance from their friends. However, when parents unconditionally accept their children, they will be much less likely to seek acceptance from a peer group — and they will develop a healthier self-esteem. According to Dr. Leman, “Your unconditional acceptance of your child means everything in her development.”
If you want to send a strong message to your child that he is accepted, listen and ask questions to show you care about his interests and concerns. In short, develop a relationship with your children. Dr. Leman says, “Without a relationship, your rules, your words and your actions mean nothing. The wedge between you and your children will drive them toward Acceptance and Belonging in a group outside your home.”
Everyone, whether they are five or fifty, wants to belong. Many people go to great lengths to ensure that they are connected with someone who cares. How can you give your children a sense of belonging? By creating a community within your family. To accomplish this, Dr. Leman suggests giving your children a vote in decisions, listening to what they say and supporting them in their activities.
In his book, Have a New Kid by Friday, Dr. Leman tells a story about 15-year-old Melissa who was approached and offered a cigarette. Because she had a strong sense of belonging within her family, she didn’t need the cigarette and replied, “No thanks. We Crayburns don’t smoke.”
By creating healthy self-esteem, a sense of belonging helps your child resist peer pressure and creates a set of expectations for your children to attain. For Melissa, it was the expectation that her family doesn’t smoke.
The third way to build self-esteem in your children is to give them the gift of competence. Children become competent when they experience life first-hand. If you are an overprotective parent, you’ll need to fight the urge to do for your children what they can do for themselves.
In his book, Dr. Leman writes:
“These days, parents are overly concerned with their child’s self-esteem. ‘I want Johnny to feel good about himself,’ a mother says. So what does a mother do? She goes out of her way to clear life’s roads for her child, to do things for him that he should be doing for himself.
She thinks she’s helping him with his self-esteem, but what she is she really doing? She’s sending a negative message: ‘I think you’re so stupid that you can’t do it yourself, so I’ll do it for you.'”
The way a mother eagle teaches her eaglets to fly is an excellent example of how guiding (without over-controlling) helps children mature and develop healthy self-esteem.
When a mother eagle wants her baby to fly, she waits until her eaglet is 80% of his adult size. Then she sets him on the edge of the nest and pushes him off into the wild blue. She watches her baby bird freefall, then swoops down just in time to catch him on her wings. This exercise is repeated over and over until the baby eaglet learns to fly.
By doing this, her baby’s confidence (and self-esteem, if eagles had such a thing) grows. Imagine if she was overly protective. Her eaglet would never learn to fly; he’d never mature.
In the same way, children mature and develop healthy self-esteem by experiencing life first-hand, even if it means that sometimes they make mistakes.
When I was 19, I decided to move to London, England for a semester. My Mum must have worried about me, but she never let on. London, with 13 million people, was light years away from my small town in southern Idaho. Even though I know Mum was concerned, she was very supportive. She has said in response to that adventure (and many others that I have embarked on), “You have to raise your children to be independent. Some people want to keep their children under their wing. That’s not the goal; the goal is to raise responsible adults.” And responsible adults are made by giving children the gift of competence. Dr. Leman would be proud Mum.
Of course, your little person will not be travelling independently overseas anytime soon, but as he exerts his independence, ask yourself if what you want to protect your children from is necessary. If it’s not a life or death situation (or harmful), allowing your child to make mistakes will help develop his self-esteem.
There you have it: the ABCs of building self-esteem in your children. Granted, it may not be as easy as singing the song, but with a little practice, your children can grow up to become confident and responsible adults.
Copyright © 2008 Shana Schutte. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.