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The Importance of Healthy Self-Esteem in Children

By Jayne A. Major

Self-Esteem in Children

Behavior Program

People with healthy self-esteem have an abundance of confidence. Failure does not slow them down. When one direction does not pan out, they look around for and expect a new direction to become available to them. They are tenacious, and their stick-to-it thinking keeps them motivated and progressing.

These people feel exuberance over a raise or a promotion. They view the day-to-day rewards of life as something they deserve. They are their own cheering squad. Instead of thinking, "This is all I deserve," or, worse yet, "I don't deserve this," they say, "Hooray for me!" and look forward to the next reward. They see life as vibrant and exciting.

People with healthy self-esteem love themselves. They have a deep feeling that they are worthy and desirable. They are able to give and receive love.

People with healthy self-esteem have a sense of inner direction. They see themselves as worthy regardless of what other people think. Under the worst of circumstances, their self-esteem keeps them going.

Good self-esteem greatly helps people manage stress and avoid self-destructive behavior. They see setbacks as temporary. They may be sad or even angry, but at the same time know that they are going to start over and are optimistic that it will work this time. This is the way that children become self-actualized in developing their strengths and making a positive contribution.

What Is Low Self-Esteem?

People with low self-esteem do not see themselves as lovable or even worthy. They don't feel good enough. When opportunities present themselves, they think, "I don't deserve it." They unconsciously find ways to sabotage their chances. The result can be a life of missed opportunities and continual disappointment.

When other people find them worthy, they think, "If you really knew me, you wouldn't like me." They "shoot themselves in the foot" precisely when they need to take a big step forward. Many people live out their lives almost dead inside, having long ago lost the juices needed to fuel their self-esteem and confidence. The tragedy is that they may have been sabotaged as children by well-meaning adults who did not understand how important it is to help children cultivate a sense of self-worth.

Such people usually are on the low end of self-esteem and do not know how to encourage in others what they do not have themselves. They fail to see that they can make choices to change their lives. They are outer-directed; they do not see themselves as being in charge of their lives (inner-directed). Instead, life is something that happens to them. They perceive themselves as victims with no power to truly take charge of their lives. They haven't developed their true self. This can be an unfortunate result of authoritarian parenting. They have the attitude that when one door closes, it slams shut; they do not picture another door opening.

Many of us verify our personal worth by looking outside of ourselves for validation. If others approve of us, we're worthy. If others look down on us with disapproval, we assume that we are unworthy. Our awareness of ourselves is not based on an internal sense of self, rather, the reference point of "Who am I?" is found somewhere else.

Self-Esteem Killers

A self-esteem killer is a statement about another person that is designed to diminish that person's sense of personal worth. Often these statements are humorous in a cruel way. Frequently, these killers have been passed down from generation to generation.

One woman said that whenever she and her sisters brought home a school photo they regularly heard their father say, "Put it under your mattress face down, and it will scare the mice away." Another person heard a parent say about her son, "Nathan is going to be this year's birth control poster child." Or, "I found you under a rock bawling your head off and I felt sorry for you."

"He's only good when he's asleep." "He's too dumb to get a headache." "If you think he is so great, you can have him."

When children are raised hearing these self-esteem killers, they are likely to assume that it is true that they are inadequate in some important way. It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy that becomes hard-wired into their brain circuitry.

They may not recognize their destructive nature. We all need to be on the outlook for these, so that they are not passed on to the next generation. A self-esteem killer is, by its very nature, destructive to a person's sense of well-being and is therefore a form of abuse.

If you saw someone beating a child, you would feel obligated to stop it. Self-esteem killers are verbal violence. Words can hit as hard as a fist, and the damage has as much or more impact than physical violence. We all have a responsibility to protect each other from both physical or verbal abuse.

Labels Can Become A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Your child's self-esteem and his or her resulting behavior are built in part on the "labels" of character that you and other caregivers use to describe your child.

After all, children absorb what they are told about themselves without much discretion. In addition, it is true for all of us that what we think and feel about ourselves leads us to behave the way we do. Thus labels become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One of the great-grandfathers of parent education, Hiam Ginot, was fond of saying, "Beware that the diagnosis doesn't become the disease." He meant that if you diagnose your aches and pains yourself, you may be wrong-but ultimately your diagnosis may invite the disease. Likewise, children absorb descriptions of their personalities in many subtle ways and begin to act according to them.

Ginot wisely advised parents not to invite the diseases of laziness, cheating, stealing, or slovenly behavior by diagnosing a child as having those diseases. If a parent sees a child as ugly, clumsy or not very smart, and points out these traits by labeling them to describe the child, the parent is encouraging homeliness, awkwardness, or dullness. We attract what we project.

How parents, the most powerful people in a child's life, use these words to describe a child's character in the early years has much to do with the interpretation a child will have of his or her own character and what kind of person the child will grow up to be.

It is inevitable that young children come to believe what others say about them. If we avoid negative labels and if we acknowledge the times when a child shows positive personality characteristics, our children are more likely to develop healthy self-esteem and believe in their own inherent goodness.

Mistakes Are Valuable

When you shoot a roll of film in your camera, do you expect every "take" to be perfect, or do you expect that there will be a "miss" on some of the pictures? A "mistake" is what happens when you miss in something you took to be a good idea.

Mistakes happen when we are trying to find our way. We learn from our results and use the information from them to design a better plan. Too many children do not understand mistakes; they see them as failures. It is only by trying different things that we grow at all. Some of the things we try will be regarded as "mistakes," but there is no way of knowing beforehand which ones. Mistakes are an essential part of the process of being successful. It is a criterion of successful children that they are not afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes can actually make children more determined and confident, but this requires a healthy self-esteem.

Too many children have been raised with the idea that mistakes are a sign that they are stupid and use it as a self-esteem killer. A mistake is better seen as an opportunity to learn a better way of thinking or doing things. Encouragement is a better choice. The number one way that we learn anything is by our mistakes.

About the Author
Jayne A. Major, Ph. D. is the author of Breakthrough Parenting: Moving Your Family from Struggle to Cooperation which she has taught for the last 25 years. Please visit for more parenting resources including online parenting classes and community.

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