A parenting and human development buzz word for the last 30 years, self-esteem is a person’s evaluation of his or her own worth. A person with positive self-esteem has a positive attitude about his or her self. Do you like yourself? Do you accept yourself as you are, not as you imagine you could be? Can you live with being flawed even as you challenge yourself to improve or change? People with positive self-esteem would answer “yes” to these questions.
Loving Ourselves: Why does self-esteem matter?
The way we feel about ourselves is reflected in our relationships with others and how we engage the world. When we feel badly about ourselves, we tend to allow others to treat us poorly and we treat others with less respect. We also tend to feel less powerful and capable. On the flip side, when we feel we are worthy of positive relationships, we seek them out and treat others with that same positive value. We also feel more capable of taking action and being successful.
As parents, the first step in building our children’s self-esteem is modeling our own self-worth. Apply all the lessons you hope your child understands about positive self-worth to yourself. Believe that your efforts have value. Believe that you have strengths that are cool and worth attention. Model treating others with kindness and expecting others to treat you well, too. Give at least as much attention and air-time to your strengths as to the areas you hope to improve.
Being Our Child’s Positive Voice
Teddy Roosevelt is credited with saying, “comparison is the thief of joy.” It could also be said that comparison is the thief of positive self-worth and self-esteem. We all live in a modern social media shame culture where we are made to feel bad or good based on if a group we want to be a part of accepts us or not. Adolescents and pre-adolescents are especially susceptible to this comparative judgement because friendships, peers and the desire to belong characterize the teen years.
In the face of this constant stream of comparison, teens need voices that highlight the ways they are awesome – even if these strengths differ from the current in-group trends. Hopefully, there are many positive, non-judgmental voices in our teen’s lives – teachers, coaches, neighbors, friends – but as parents we are the most important positive voice for our children.
Even moments that could be labeled as “failures” are opportunities for parents to be the positive voice. Rather than harping on a perceived mistake like the missed shot during the game or a poor grade (which, believe me, your teen remembers), parents can highlight the good. “You did miss that shot but you take every opportunity to pass to your teammates and help the team shine.” For every negative comment, share (at least) five additional positive comments. Make it a habit to look for the good and verbalize it.
As you model verbalizing your child’s strengths, she will start to internalize that language, grow in her ability to maintain her own self-positive voice, and even be more likely to comment on others’ strengths. Growing up my dad would repeat a version of Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley’s mantra when we had a stressful day or upcoming event. He’d say, “It helps to remember three things: I’m smart, I’m good-looking, and gosh-darn-it people like me. Even if you are nervous or feel like a failure or think no one is going to like you, repeat that to yourself because it is true.” Can you guess what phrase my brothers and I (all in our 30s) still repeat to ourselves? (I’m smart, I’m good-looking, and gosh-darn-it people like me.)
Self-worth builds from our earliest years. By repeating an affirming phrase about our self-worth, we practice a mindset that fosters positive self-esteem.
Article by Anne Clarkson
Anne Clarkson received her doctorate in Human Development and Family Studies from UW-Madison and is currently the Digital Parenting Education Specialist with UW-Extension Family Living Programs. Over the past 10 years, she has worked as an educator in the fields of community health, parenting, family studies, and digital education. She and her husband are excited to be starting their own parenting journey this summer. Anne was a pretty easy teenager whose parents worried more about pushing her to try new experiences than about her rebellious behavior. When not talking about families and technology, Anne loves to cook, read, travel, play board games, and take long walks (ideally along beaches but typically along sidewalks).