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As a child, my mother used to explain self-esteem to me as such – we are all like trees. Some of us are Pine Trees; straight, organised and neat. While others are like Thorn Trees; a bit rugged, uneven and disorganised. While both trees are so different, they each have their own unique beauty and attraction. And while they both offer different gifts, one gift is no more important than another.
I think that as adults, parents having been out in ‘this world’ for long enough to have been bumped and bruised and left with little (or sometimes big) marks on our self-esteem. As adults it’s natural to no longer feel we are capable of anything and that the world will rise up to meet us… But we also instinctively know that our children need to start off with a certain level of naivety that will be tempered by experiences in their own time. Our role is to equip them with a dream and life will do the pruning.
In order to discuss the topic of self-esteem, it’s important (as always) to start at the beginning…
Babies are born without the knowledge that they exist as separate human beings. They view themselves as being part of their parents – an extension, so to speak. It is only at around nine months that a baby starts to realise that she exists in a body that is separate to those of other people.
You will know that your baby has made this discovery when something interesting happens and he looks at your face to see your reaction. This is called “joint attention”.
Developing gradually, from that first moment of joint attention, your child’s ability to form an own opinion blossoms at about 18 months when “No!” becomes a passionate response. By then she has a clear understanding that her will is her own and she doesn’t have to eat that butternut if she doesn’t want to… This is a major discovery for her, and it’s understandable that she is intrigued by this knowledge.
You can see your child’s concept of self develop practically by doing the ‘mirror test’: Put a mark on your child’s forehead and stand him in front of the mirror. If he’s under 18 months old, he is likely to try to wipe the mark off the mirror, while an older child will realise that he is looking at his reflection and wipe the mark off his own face.
Interestingly, at 2 years old, your child’s concept of himself reaches a point where he starts referring to himself as ‘I’ instead of using his name (as if he was talking in the third-person).
Then, six months later, at about two-and-a-half years old, your child will reach another exciting milestone in this regard when she will now be able to name herself in a photograph.
These are all steps in the process of your child understanding that she is person in her own right. It doesn’t happen overnight, rather it is a process over months and years.
Just like a child’s concept of her physical body develops over time, so too does her concept of her core emotional self.
In terms of self-esteem, your 18-month-old child will not notice if you tell her that she’s a failure, while a two-year-old will most likely become upset and then bounce back rather quickly. However, if you consistently tell your three-year-old that she’s bad and wrong, this is sure to scar the concept that she has of her core emotional self. In other words, she will learn to see herself as being a person who is “bad” and “wrong”.
According to a book written by Dr John Pearce called Growth and Development, by the age of five, your child has come to understand what he’s like as a person. Is he clever or not so clever? Is he good-looking or not so attractive? Is he successful or mostly a failure? Is he likable or disliked? Is he generous or selfish? And the list goes on…
Dr Nathaniel Brandan, a specialist in self-esteem, defines it as, “…the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness.”
According to the Child Development Institute, a child or teenager with healthy self-esteem will be able to:
- Act independently
- Assume responsibility
- Take pride in his or her accomplishments
- Tolerate Frustration
- Attempt new tasks and challenges
- Handle positive and negative emotions in himself and others
- Offer assistance to others
Conversely, a child or teenager with unhealthy self-esteem will:
- Avoid trying new things
- Feel unloved and unwanted
- Blame others for his or her shortcomings
- Feel, or pretend to feel, emotionally indifferent
- Be unable to tolerate normal levels of frustration
- Put down his or her own talents and abilities
- Be easily influenced
Maya Angelo (acclaimed American writer and poet) so eloquently explained what she believes a parent’s role should be – when your child walks into a room and you look them up and down, noting their mismatched socks, untied shoes, unruly hair and dirty finger nails… they feel judged. What a child wants and deserves more than anything in the world is for your eyes to light up as they enter a room – as though they have just brought the sunlight with them. This is so heart-warming, and it sat on my heart like a butterfly about to take flight, motivating me to find out more about how I could grow my child’s self-esteem in a practical way.
The answer, I have found, is about self-denial…
Practically speaking, parenting can be such a stressful job that its very easy to forget the big picture. We sometimes get bogged down by focusing on short-term solutions that do not have long-term benefits. For example, lashing out at a child when he disappoints us, screaming a child when we want to get something done quickly, doing things for our child instead of giving him the time he needs to practice to do things for himself…
These things seem to work in the short-term but building self-confidence is a long-term process that takes short-term sacrifices. The investment we make when we’re tired but still make the effort to let our face light up when our child enters the room, biting our tongue when our child is trying to tie his own shoe-laces for the 50th time, answering the same questions over and over again with a happy tone of voice and a smile on our face, and hiding our disappointment when we find out our child has used his brother as a chew-toy once again…
Because our children’s actions touch us so deeply, this is probably the highest level of self-sacrifice… But we instinctively deny ourselves for their sake. And our message to you today is ‘keep it up – it is worth it!’.
It remains a fact that our children see themselves mirrored in our eyes, and our choices today will directly affect their image of themselves for the rest of their lives. We make certain sacrifices in these formative years so that they can enter the world as happy and whole people.
Words: Loren Stow
when we know better… we do better
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*Practica Parents: Anything that helps in lessening the responsibility of parenting is a blessing. With the Practica Programme at hand, you are able to let go of the worry of doing the right thing at the right time to stimulate your child’s development, so that you can devote more energy and time into your relationship. The key however is to read your guide and plan in advance so that you can weave it into your daily life.
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