What is self-esteem? It’s the way we regard our self.
So high self-esteem means we see ourselves as good and capable, that we are secure in our value. Low self-esteem means we see ourselves as not good enough, that we are insecure about our own value.
All of us have intrinsic value as human beings, not because of what we accomplish, but merely because of who we are.
But who are we? Who we are can only be perceived by what we do, how we interact with our environment. And all humans find themselves tested by their environments, all of us have tasks to master throughout our lives, growth that is demanded of us, practice and training and hurdles and tests. That is what shapes who we are, what brings our selves into expression.
Every parent wants their children to love themselves, to be confident, happy people. But some parents worry that children can have self-esteem that is too high.
There is no such thing. We cannot see ourselves as too good, too capable, too valuable.
The worry these parents are expressing is that their child might have an overinflated view of his own abilities, or a conviction that he’s more important than other people. But that’s not self-esteem.
That’s grandiosity, and it derives from insecurity. If you’ve heard that kids with high self-esteem act entitled, superior, narcissistic, or full of themselves, that’s just not true. Any psychological measure of these traits is not measuring self-esteem, but grandiosity, which is the opposite of self esteem.
Low self-esteem can sometimes express itself in self-deprecating behavior, but more often expresses itself as arrogance, a need to believe that we are better than others.
This is a defense against the deep fear that we aren’t good enough, so we must constantly measure ourselves against others and win. By contrast, people with high self-esteem are secure enough in their sense of value that they don’t need to compare themselves to others or inflate their abilities: they are more than enough, just exactly as they are.
So how can you help your child develop high self-esteem? There are two components—the sense that you are good, and the sense that you are capable.
I’m using good in the sense that the child feels that she is of value, regardless of what she does, and regardless of whether she succeeds or fails. I’m using capable in the sense that the child feels capable of meeting his needs and achieving his own aspirations.
Let’s dig more deeply into this.
Step 1: You are good
The core of self-esteem is “stable internal happiness,” a phrase that was coined by Martha Heineman Pieper, the author of Smartlove. Stable internal happiness is the secure sense that one is good and capable and that the world is a good place, despite the inevitable wins and losses that life will present.
While some people have a natural tendency to better moods and more optimism than others, stable internal happiness can be fostered in any child with unconditional love. Just telling children we love them is not sufficient to develop healthy self-esteem. The child must feel that she’s loved unconditionally.
What does that kind of parenting look like?
Parenting that communicates that this child is appreciated and adored, exactly as she is. She knows that she inspires your love just by being herself. She doesn’t have to prove herself, work a bit harder, be a bit better behaved. It doesn’t matter if she wins or loses, succeeds or fails.
Parenting that is responsive to this unique child’s needs and emotions. Sound familiar? This is the same kind of parenting that fosters secure attachment, which is an overlapping concept that raises a child who feels worthy and safe. These parents stay connected even while the child becomes increasingly independent. They accept and affirm all of who the child is, including those messy, challenging, negative human feelings.
All parents encounter times when staying positive in the face of a tantrumming toddler, recalcitrant ten-year-old, or rude teenager can seem almost impossible, and we’re tempted to withdraw into anger. But giving a child the cold shoulder doesn’t teach her anything positive about how to build a relationship. Worse, it teaches her that your love is conditional on her acting a certain way. As always, when kids are at their least lovable is when they need our love the most.
Parenting that stays connected to the child while guiding him. Punishment always undermines self-esteem. Sure, kids need limits. No, he can’t pee on the rug, run in the street, run around in the restaurant, call his mother a poopyface, hit his brother.
But setting those limits with empathy —”You’re mad! And I won’t let you hit.”—helps kids learn to manage their emotions and therefore their behavior. That helps them see themselves as good and capable. Punishment, by comparison, does not help kids learn to manage their emotions, it just worsens the tangle of angry feelings they already can’t control and makes them feel like bad people who can’t even manage themselves, much less the world.
Parenting that gives lots of unconditional positive encouragement. Affirmation, encouragement, and acknowledgment are essential for children to feel seen, heard, respected, appreciated, and valued—all part of developing healthy self esteem.
This does not mean praising a child for traits or abilities she doesn’t have, such as perfection, because she knows she’s not perfect: praise for specific traits, as opposed to specific behavior, seems to undermine self esteem.
So, for instance, telling a child he’s smart pressures him to always be smart, which is impossible (why doesn’t he know what chartreuse is?), so it makes him insecure. By contrast, acknowledging that a child has worked hard and made progress toward his goal reinforces his sense that he is capable.
Kids who are lucky enough to experience unconditional love and acceptance develop stable internal happiness early, by 10 or 12.
Setbacks from the outside world—lost ball games, a flubbed test, even a family move that leaves friends behind—throw them for much briefer times than other kids, and they return quickly to their normal happy state. But that’s only true for a handful of lucky people. Many of us don’t reach this state until our twenties, others work our whole lives to get there. Your child, who is lucky enough to have a parent who thinks about these issues, probably already has a good start, regardless of his innate disposition.
The reason it matters to unconditionally love our kids and appreciate who they are is that it helps them to accept and appreciate themselves. In addition to conferring happiness and the ability to love others, that gives children the resilience to pursue their goals and meet their needs, which confers more happiness (and more self esteem). Which brings us to:
Step 2: You are capable
As a child grows, he needs to experience himself as capable of meeting his needs and successfully pursuing his goals. Self-esteem begins with unconditional love, which of course has nothing to do with accomplishment. It helps the child develop the stable internal happiness that will help him meet his needs and accomplish his goals.
Secondary self-esteem comes from the pride of knowing, deep inside, that we can take care of ourselves and meet our needs—that we have what it takes to bring our dreams into reality.
Self-esteem starts with feeling loved, because only kids who feel completely loved are able to tackle and master hard things. And self-esteem does require the person to feel they are capable of taking care of themselves and achieve their desires. And that, of course, means tackling things that are hard. Which means, as parents, encouraging our children to do some hard things.
But—and this is essential—this is about the child pursuing his own goals. (“Dad really supports me to work hard at my soccer because he knows it’s important to me.”) It isn’t about our making the child work hard at goals that we’ve set. That shades into conditional love. (“Dad loves me more if I score a goal.”)
So this doesn’t mean pushing your child inappropriately, which we might call Tiger Mothering. It certainly doesn’t mean rescuing or doing it for them, which we might call Helicoptering. It means paying attention, and giving your child targeted support to develop his own competence and his own feeling of being capable and powerful.