Self-esteem is your child's passport to lifetime mental health and social happiness. It's the foundation of a child's well-being and the key to success as an adult. At all ages, how you feel about yourself affects how you act. Think about a time when you were feeling really good about yourself. You probably found it much easier to get along with others and feel good about them.
Self-image is how one perceives oneself
The child looks in the mirror and likes the person he sees. He looks inside himself and is comfortable with the person he sees. He must think of this self as being someone who can make things happen and who is worthy of love. Parents are the main source of a child's sense of self-worth.
Lack of a good self-image very often leads to behavior problems
Most of the behavioral problems that I see for counseling come from poor self-worth in parents as well as children. Why is one person a delight to be with, while another always seems to drag you down? How people value themselves, get along with others, perform at school, achieve at work, and relate in marriage, all stem from strength of their self-image.
Healthy self-worth doesn't mean being narcissistic or arrogant;
it means having a realistic understanding of one's strengths and weaknesses, enjoying the strengths and working on the problem areas. Because there is such a strong parallel between how a person feels about himself and how a person acts, helping your child build self-confidence is vital to discipline. Throughout life your child will be exposed to positive influences builders and negative influences breakers. Parents can expose their child to more builders and help him work through the breakers.
- PRACTICE ATTACHMENT PARENTING
Put yourself in the place of a baby who spends many hours a day in a caregiver's arms, is worn in a sling, breastfed on cue, and her cries are sensitively responded to. How do you imagine this baby feels?
This baby feels loved; this baby feels valuable. Ever had a special day when you got lots of strokes and showered with praise? You probably felt like queen for a day and hopefully you behaved accordingly. The infant on the receiving end of this high-touch style of parenting develops self-worth. She likes what she feels. Responsiveness is the key to infant self-value.
Baby gives a cue, for example, crying to be fed or comforted. A caregiver responds promptly and consistently. As this cue-response pattern is repeated many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times during the first year baby learns that her cues have meaning: "Someone listens to me, therefore, I am worthwhile." A stronger self emerges. Of course, you can't always respond promptly or consistently. It's the predominant pattern that counts. You will have days when you are short on patience. Babies pick out the prevailing parenting style and form impressions. As baby gets older it becomes important for him to learn how to deal with healthy frustration, as this will teach him to adjust to change. The important thing is that you are there for him; that's the message on which baby builds his sense of self.
The confidence-building aspects that result from attachment-parenting pay off especially with high-need babies. Because of these infants' more intense demands, they are at higher risk of receiving negative responses. When attachment parenting produces mutual sensitivity between connected parents and high-need babies, they learn to see themselves in a good light. Because of responsive nurturing, the connected baby knows what to expect. On the other hand, the disconnected child is confused. If his needs are not met and his cues unanswered, he feels that signals are not worth giving. This leads to the conclusion that "I'm not worthwhile. I'm at the mercy of others, and there's nothing I can do to reach them." We emphasize the importance of early nurturing because during the first two years the baby's brain is growing very fast. This is the period when a baby develops patterns of associations – mental models of the way things work.
The developing infant's mind is like a file drawer. In each file is a mental picture of a cue she gives along with the response she expects. After a certain interaction, the baby stores a mental image of what happened. For example, baby raises her arms and a parent responds by picking her up. Repetition deepens these patterns in the infant's mind, and eventually emotions, positive or negative, become associated with them. A file drawer full of mostly positive feelings and images leads to a feeling of "rightness." Her sense of "well-being" becomes part of baby's self. Infants who get used to the feeling of well-being they get from attachment parenting spend the rest of their lives striving to keep this feeling. Because they have so much practice at feeling good, they can regain this right feeling after temporary interruptions.
These secure infants cope better with life's setbacks because they are motivated to repair their sense of well-being, which has become integrated into their sense of self. They may fall down a lot, but they are likely to wind up back on their feet. This concept is especially true for a child who is handicapped or seems to come into this world relatively short-changed in natural talents. Children who do not have this early sense of well-being struggle to find it, but they are unsure of what they are looking for because they don't know how it feels.
This explains why some babies who get attachment parenting in the early years manage well despite an unsettled childhood because of family problems. Consider the famous case of Baby Jessica, the two-year-old who because of a legal quirk was taken from the familiar and nurturing home of her adoptive parents whom she had known since birth, and given to her biological parents who were strangers to her. She is likely to thrive because she entered a strange situation with a strong sense of well-being created by early nurturing. She will spend the rest of her life maintaining that feeling despite the trauma she endured.
But what if I didn't practice all those attachment styles of parenting, you may wonder? Don't be too hard on yourself. Babies are resilient and, of course, it's never too late to start building up your child's self-image. Getting to know your child and seeing things from his point of view will help you help him learn to trust himself. This kind of nurturing cements together the blocks of self-worth, and can also repair them. Still, the earlier the cement is applied, the smoother it goes on and the stronger it sticks.
- IMPROVE YOUR OWN SELF-CONFIDENCE
Parenting is therapeutic. In caring for your child you often heal yourself. A mother with a high-need baby in our practice once declared, "My baby brings out the best and the worst in me." If there are problems in your past that affect your present parenting, confront them. Get psychological help if they are interfering with your ability to remain calm and parent effectively.
Heal your past
A child's self-esteem is acquired, not inherited. Certain parenting traits and certain character traits, such as anger and fearfulness, are learned in each generation. Having a baby gives you the chance to become the parent you wish you had. If you suffer from low self-confidence, especially if you feel it's a result of how you were parented, take steps to heal yourself and break the family pattern. Try this exercise (therapists call this "passing on the best, and discarding the rest")
> List the specific things your parents did to build your self-image.
> List the specific things your parents did to weaken your self-image.
> Now resolve to emulate the good things your parents did and avoid the rest. If you find it difficult to follow through with this exercise on your own, get help from a professional. Both you and your child will benefit.
Don't be too hard on your parents
They probably did the best they could given their circumstances and the prevailing advice of the times. I remember once hearing a grandmother say to a mother, "I was a good mother to you. I followed exactly the schedule the doctor gave me." This new mother felt that some of her present problems stemmed from the rigid scheduling that she endured when she was a baby. She was determined to learn to read her baby's cues. I reminded her not to blame her own mother because the prevailing parenting practice at the time was to follow the "experts'" advice on childrearing. The mother of the 90's, however, is more comfortable becoming the expert on her own child.
Polish your mirror
No one can put on a happy face all the time, but a parent's unhappiness can transfer to a child. Your child looks to you as a mirror for his own feelings. If you are worried, you can't reflect good feelings. In the early years, a child's concept of self is so intimately tied up with the mother's concept of herself that a sort of mutual self-worth building goes on. What image do you reflect to your child? She will see through a false facade to the troubled person beneath. Matthew, on a fill-in-the-blanks tribute to his mother, wrote: "I like being with my mother most when she's happy." Children translate your unhappiness with yourself to mean unhappiness with them. Even infants know they are supposed to please their parents. As they get older, they may even come to feel responsible for their parents' happiness. If you are not content, they must not be good (or good enough). If you are experiencing serious problems with depression or anxiety, seek help so that you can resolve these feelings before they affect your child.
- BE A POSITIVE MIRROR
Much of a child's self-image comes not only from what the child perceives about herself, but from how she thinks others perceive her. This is especially true of preschoolers who learn about themselves from their parents' reactions. Do you reflect positive or negative images to your child? Do you give her the idea that she's fun to be with? That her opinions and desires matter to you? That her behavior pleases you?
When you give your child positive reflections, he learns to think well of himself. He will also willingly rely on you to tell him when his behavior is not pleasing. This becomes a discipline tool. "All I have to do is look at her a certain way, and she stops misbehaving," said one mother. She had saturated her child's self awareness with positive feelings, and the youngster was used to the way he felt being on the receiving end of these strokes. When mother flashed a negative reflection, the child didn't like the feeling it produced. He changed his behavior quickly to regain his sense of well-being.
You can't be up and smiling all the time and still be human. Your child should know that parents have down days, too. Children can see through fake cheerfulness. Your sensitivity toward him will increase his sensitivity toward you, and someday he may be the one lifting your self- confidence.
Putting Humpty-Dumpty Back Together Again
You spend the early years building your child's self-confidence. You spend the later years protecting it. Many thin-skinned children need protection from situations they find overwhelming. I was examining five-year-old Thomas for his school-entry physical. Thomas was a sensitive child whose mother had spent years helping him build a strong sense of self-worth. We were engaged in a philosophical discussion of the long-term benefits of attachment parenting and Thomas was understandably bored. He began hanging on my scale—an expensive scale that is built into the top of the examining table. My first thought was the safety of my table. To me it was more at risk than Thomas, so I firmly asked, "Thomas, would you please stop hanging on the scale?" Just as Thomas was about to crumble from my unintended put-down, his mother interjected a saving, "...because you're so strong." She knows how to get behind the eyes of her child.
- PLAY WITH YOUR CHILD
You will learn a lot about your child—and yourself—during play. Playtime gives your child the message "You are worth my time. You are a valuable person." It is well known that children learn through play. It improves a child's behavior by giving him feelings of importance and accomplishment. Instead of viewing playtime as a chore, use it to make an investment in your child's behavior.
Let your child initiate the play
A valuable learning principle that parents should keep in mind is this: an activity initiated by the child holds the child's attention longer than one suggested by the adult playmate. More learning takes place when the child chooses what to do. Child-initiated play also increases self-worth: "Dad likes to do the things I do!" of course, you may be thinking, "oh no, not the block game again!" or "We've read that story twenty times!" That's the ordeal of parenting. You'll get bored with The Cat in the Hat long before your child. If you want to bring something new to the same old play activity, add your own new twists as the play continues. Stop to talk about the book: "What would you do if the Cat in the Hat came to our door?" "Let's turn this block tower into a parking garage."
Make your child feel special
During play, focus your attention on the child. If your body is with your child but your mind is at work, your child will sense that you have tuned out, and neither one of you benefits from the time together. Your child loses the value of your being with her, concluding that she is not important. You lose the opportunity to learn about and enjoy your child—and to relearn how to play. I remember the fun six-month-old Matthew and I had in our "play circle." I sat him facing in front of me with a few favorite toys (mine and his) making a circle around him with my legs. This space contained him and provided support in case he, as a beginning sitter, started to topple sideways. Matthew had my undivided attention. He felt special and so did I. Making all those goofy baby noises is fun.
Parents need play
As a busy person, I had a hard time getting down to a baby's level enjoying unstructured, seemingly unproductive play. After all, I had so many "more important" things on my agenda. Once I realized how much we both could benefit, this special time became meaningful. Play became therapeutic for me. I needed time away from some of those other things to focus on this important little person who was, without realizing it, teaching me to relax. Play helped me to get to know Matthew's temperament and his capabilities at each stage of development. The child reveals himself to the parent—and vice versa— during play; the whole relationship benefits greatly. Playtime puts us on our child's level, helping parents get behind the eyes and into the mind of their child. Take time to enjoy the simple pleasures of play.
Play is an investment
Consider playtime one of your best investments. You may feel that you are "wasting time" stacking blocks when you could be "doing something" instead. Some adults panic at the thought and really have to struggle to be able to let go of their grown-up agenda. Of course, you don't have to play all day long, nor will your child want you to (unless he senses your resistance!). What may seem like a meaningless activity to you, means a lot to your baby. The more interest you show in doing things with your baby early on, the more interest your child will have in doing things with you when he's older. As your child grows, you can involve him in your play and your work, since being with you is the best reward. Think of it this way—you are doing the most important job in the world—raising a human being.
- ADDRESS YOUR CHILD BY NAME
What's in a name? The person, the self—little or big. I can still remember my grandfather impressing on me the value of using and remembering peoples' names. This lesson has proved profitable. One year I was a pre-med student competing with a bunch of marketing majors for a summer sales job. After I landed the job I inquired why I, though less qualified, had been hired. "Because you remembered and used the names of all of your interviewers." Addressing your child by name, especially when accompanied by eye contact and touch, exudes a "you're special" message. Beginning an interaction by using the other person's name opens doors, breaks barriers, and even softens corrective discipline.
Children learn to associate how you use their name with the message you have and the behavior you expect. Parents often use a child's nickname or first name only in casual dialogue, "Jimmy, I like what you are doing." They beef up the message by using the full name to make a deeper impression, "James Michael Sears, stop that!" one child we've heard about refers to his whole name as his "mad name" because that's what he hears when his parents are angry at him. We have noticed that children with self-confidence more frequently address their peers and adults by name or title. Their own self-worth allows them to be more direct in their communication with others. Our two-year-old Lauren dashes by my desk chirping: "Hi, Dad!" The addition of "Dad" impressed me more than an impersonal "Hi!" A school-age child who is comfortable addressing adults by name will be better able to ask for help when needed.
- PRACTICE THE CARRY-OVER PRINCIPLE
As your child gets older, encourage her talents. She can do well at something, whether as a two-year-old who packs exceptional pretend picnics or a ten-year- old who loves ballet. Over the years, we've noticed a phenomenon we call the carryover principle: enjoying one activity boosts a child's self-image, and this carries over into other endeavors. One of our sons is a natural athlete, but he wasn't interested in academics. Operating on the carryover principle, we encouraged his enjoyment of athletics while supporting him as he worked on the academics. The schoolwork improved as his overall self-confidence increased. Recognize your child's special talents, and help her build on them, then watch the whole person blossom.
- SET YOUR CHILD UP TO SUCCEED
Helping your child develop talents and acquire skills is part of discipline. If you recognize an ability in your child that he doesn't, encourage him. Strike a balance between pushing and protecting. Both are necessary. If you don't encourage your child to try, his skills don't improve, and you've lost a valuable confidence builder. If you don't protect your child from unrealistic expectations, his sense of competence is threatened.
Beware of value-by-comparisons
Children measure their own value by how they perceive others value them. And in our measuring-and-testing society, children's skills—and therefore their value—are measured relative to others. Your child may bat an exceptional .400 on the softball team, but she will feel inadequate if her teammates are batting 500. Be sure your child believes you value her because of who she is, not how she performs. Do this by giving her plenty of eye contact, touching, and focused attention. In other words, give of yourself regardless of how the game or the achievement test turns out.
Don't expect your child to excel in sports or music or academics just because you did. The one thing your child can excel in is being herself. She must know that your love for her does not depend on your approval of her performance. That's a tough assignment for a parent who may have been raised to perform for love and acceptance.
- HELP YOUR CHILD BE HOME-WISE BEFORE STREET-SMARTS
Sometime during your parenting career you may run into the idea that a young child should be exposed to children with different values so that he can choose for himself. This may sound good, or at least politically correct, but it just plain doesn't work. It's like sending a ship to sea without a rudder or a captain. Only by chance will that ship reach a desirable destination. Children are too valuable to be left to chance.
Screen your child's friends
The child's values and self-concept are affected by persons of significance in his life— relatives, coaches, teachers, religious leaders, scout leaders, and friends. It's up to the parents to screen out those who pull down the child's character and encourage those that build it. Keep a watchful eye on your child's friendships. First, let your child choose his own friends and monitor the relationships. At the end of a play experience examine your child's feelings. Is he at peace or upset? Are the children compatible? Coupling a passive person with a strong personality is all right if the stronger child pulls your child up rather than knocking him down.
While some children will wisely seek out complimentary playmates on their own, sometimes it is helpful to set up your child by purposely exposing him to appropriate peers. Some groups of children just naturally seem to get along well. If your child's group does not seem to have the right chemistry, it would be wise to intervene. By being a monitoring mom, Martha was able to come to the rescue of one of our children who was being intimidated and blackmailed into stealing money from us. This junior racketeer in the neighborhood was busted because Martha became suspicious of certain phone calls and listened in one day. Our frightened seven-year-old was in way over his head and was greatly relieved when we intervened.
Keep a kid-friendly home
Make your home inviting to your child's friends. Yes, you will have more messes to clean up, but it's worth it. Hosting the neighborhood helps you monitor your child; it gives you the opportunity to observe your child's social style and generally learn more about your child's personality—which social behaviors are appropriate and which need improving. You'll be able to make on-the-spot disciplinary interventions, either with your child in a private lesson or in group therapy if the whole pack needs some redirecting.
The roots of a young child's self-concept come from home and nurturing caregivers. After six years of age, peer influence becomes increasingly important. The deeper the roots of home-grown self-confidence, the better equipped kids are to interact with peers in a way that builds up self-worth rather than tearing it down. They know how to handle peers who are fun to play with and those that give them problems. When children are attachment parented, they are well equipped to manage different environments (home, grandparents, preschool, Sunday school) with different rules very well. For healthy social development, a child first must be comfortable with himself before he can be comfortable with others.
Clinging to homebase
In normal development a child moves out from the known into the unknown. She tries out new experiences in much the same way that an attached infant learns to separate from mother. It is quite normal for a child to retreat periodically into the comfort of the known (her home and family) as she progressively ventures into the jungle of the unknown. It is important for the child to have a strong attachment base. Being shy does not mean that a child has a poor self-image. She needs an extra dose of confidence so that she can follow her own inner timetable in adjusting to new situations and relationships. Parents often wonder what degree of clinging to homebase is normal. Look at the problem over the course of an entire year. If you see no change in the child's willingness to venture out, that may be unhealthy. But if you see some gradual moving out, then your child is simply a cautious social developer, which is characteristic of sensitive children, who may form a few meaningful and deep relationships, rather than numerous superficial ones.
- Lose labels
"I'm asthmatic," seven-year-old Greg proudly said to me when I inquired why he came to my office. Indeed, Greg did have asthma, but the physical problem was much easier to treat than the emotional side effects of his label. A few puffs of a bronchial dilator and his wheezing cleared, but his label persisted. I mentioned privately to Greg's mother that there are two issues to address in any child with a chronic illness: the problem itself, and the child's and family's reactions to the problem.
Every child searches for an identity and, when found, clings to it like a trademark. "Asthmatic" had become Greg's label, and he wore it often. His whole day revolved around his ailment, and his family focused on this part of Greg instead of on the whole person. Instead of feeling compassion, Greg's brothers and sisters had become tired of planning their lives around Greg's asthma. They couldn't go on certain trips because Greg might get too tired. It became a family illness, and all, except Greg, were put into roles they didn't like. To take away Greg's label would be to take away Greg's self-esteem. So, we made a deal. I would treat Greg's asthma; the family would enjoy Greg, and we all worked at giving "the asthmatic" a healthier label to wear.
- MONITOR SCHOOL INFLUENCES ON YOUR CHILD
Schools can be hazardous to a child's emotional health. School choice (if you have one) needs to be carefully considered. The connected child who enters the school arena with peers from various upbringings and degrees of attachment will have a set of expectations that he may not find at school. Children meet the challenges of a new social group with different behaviors. If a child is securely attached to his caregivers and armed with a strong self-image, he may not be disturbed by these different behaviors. He may stick cheerfully to his own style of play. Or, he may be frustrated, creating stress on his emerging personality. If his self-confidence is shaky, a child may view aggressiveness or bullying as normal and make these behaviors part of himself or allow himself to be victimized.
Around age six, when your child begins elementary school, other adults become influential in her life. These are people who are around your child enough to influence her behavior and model values. Once upon a time persons of significance in a child's life came primarily from within the extended family, but in today's mobile society a child is likely to have a wider variety of peers and persons of significance. This means that today's parents need to be vigilant as to who is modeling what behavior to their children. Here is where there is confusion in the ranks of parents as disciplinarians. There are two extremes. On the one side are the parents who feel it's healthy for children to experience a lot of different value systems while growing up so that they will be more open-minded as adults. On the other side are parents who want to protect their child from all outside influences and any ideas that may differ from their own beliefs. This child grows up in a bubble-like atmosphere.
Somewhere between these two extremes is the right answer for your child. Throwing a child into the melting pot of diverse values at too young an age, before she has any of her own values, may produce a child who is so confused that she develops no conscience and no standing value system. Parents who overprotect may end up with a child who cannot think for herself, leaving her vulnerable to challenges or so judgmental that she condemns anyone with different beliefs. Somewhere in the middle is the parent who grounds the child in a firm value system and guides her as she encounters other value systems. The child, because she has a strong value system to begin with, is better able to weigh her parents' value system against alternatives and develop her own firm code of values. It may be different from the parents'. It may include many of the parents' values with a sprinkling of alternatives learned from peers or teachers. But the important thing is that the child has a value system from which to operate. He is not a leaf hurried downstream in the river that takes the path of least resistance, overflows its bounds, and eventually drains into a large sea of uncertainty. Many children flounder, sometimes for the rest of their lives, searching for values that should have been formed in infancy and early childhood.
Parents, don't be misled by the complacent term "latent" applied to middle childhood. This is not the time to sleep and get careless. This is the age in which your children build consciences and learn your value system. In fact, it's the only time in their entire life when they unquestionably, at least early in that stage, accept their parents' value system. Slowly they form their own standards through interaction with peers, other families, and teachers, and through neighborhood relationships and church/synagogue friendships. They discover a larger world with a variety of beliefs and behaviors. As they talk (endlessly) and observe and experiment in a variety of situations, they learn about how they will choose to act and react. Trying belatedly to impose your values on a teenager whose main developmental task at this stage is to identify his own values is difficult. The best way to get your values across is to "walk your talk" by living your values.
- GIVE YOUR CHILD RESPONSIBILITIES
Children need jobs. One of the main ways children develop self- confidence and internalize values is through helping maintain the family living area, inside and out. Giving children household duties helps them feel more valuable, besides channeling their energy into desirable behavior and teaching skills. Try these tips:
Enter the work force early. Beginning around age two, children can do small jobs around the house. To hold a child's interest, choose tasks the child has already shown an interest in. Our two-year-old, Lauren, had a thing about napkins, so we gave her the dinnertime job of putting napkins at each place. A mother in our practice told us: "I couldn't keep our three-year-old away from the vacuum cleaner. So I gave him the job of vacuuming the family room. He kept busy and I got some work out of him." Starting between ages two and four, a child can learn the concept of responsibility to self and to parents and for his personal belongings. Once he learns a sense of responsibility for these things, a sense of responsibility to society will come naturally in the next stage of development.
By three years of age, a child can be taught to clean sinks and tubs (using a sponge and a small can of cleanser). Young children love to scrub. Three's and Four's love to sort laundry into darks and lights. At five, the child can be doing dishes every night. Teach him exactly how you want them handled (for example, excess food in the garbage, dishes rinsed, and then put in the dishwasher). Be sure to use unbreakable cups and plates and put messy pans in the oven to be cleaned later by an adult.
By seven, a child can be cooking at least one meal a week from start to finish. Teach him how to fix his favorite meal and let him learn how to pick out the ingredients at the market. Encourage school-age children to make their own lunch. Besides giving them a sense of responsibility for their own nutrition, they are more likely to eat what they make. Once taught, the child can be left alone in the kitchen—no hovering mother. Relax and talk to your mate.
Give special jobs
Call a job "special" and it's more likely to get done. Whatever magical ring the word "special" has, it sure gets results. Perhaps a child infers that "I must be special because I get a special job." A four-to five-year-old can have preassigned chores, with reminders, of course. To put some order in our busy house we announce: "It's tidy time." Try assigning one room for each child to tidy up. Children at all ages suffer a bit of work inertia, especially as tasks wear on and lose their fun appeal. But sometimes children need to learn that work comes before play. To get them started, work with them.
Create job charts
Make this a creative activity for a family meeting. List the jobs to be done, and let each child choose and rotate if they want. We divide jobs into paying, extra- credit jobs they can earn money for, and nonpaying or those that are naturally expected of the children for the privilege of living in our home. Expect to pay a higher price on the most unwanted jobs. Best is to pay immediately after the work is responsibly done, since children are immediate-reward oriented. In the next stage of development, from five to ten years, children can make the connection that with increasing privileges come responsibilities. When we decided to get a family cottage, the deal was that Saturday mornings would be family fix-up time at the cottage, and only after the work was completed would the recreation begin.
Plant a family garden
Planting a garden teaches children that they reap what they sow. During our family garden phase, when our children were younger, we tied in caring for a garden and caring for them: Water the plants and they grow nicely, keep the weeds away and the flowers bloom better.
Other jobs boys and girls love and do well when first taught alongside a parent include: washing the car, sweeping outdoor living areas and sidewalks, gardening, vacuuming, dusting, and baby tending. By seven or eight they can put in a load of laundry, and by ten they can be doing their own laundry. When children have jobs in the home, not only are parents relieved of some of the busywork, but children feel they are contributing to a cause. They feel useful and needed. And the energy they spend on the home becomes an investment they are making into the value system of that home.
- ENCOURAGE CHILDREN To EXPRESS, NOT STUFF, THEIR FEELINGS
Expressing feelings comfortably does not mean the child is free to explode at every emotional twinge, but rather develops a comfortable balance between expressing and controlling feelings. She should eventually be able to keep a lid on her emotions when needed, but not so tightly that she can't remove the lid in a "safe" setting, such as exercising (i.e., run like mad to blow off steam), or with a trustworthy friend. All babies freely express their feelings. Maturity develops through years of learning how to stay calm in difficult situations. A child with unbridled emotions becomes a brat. A person who never expresses emotions becomes too reserved. Too much control or too much emoting will both produce problems in adult life.
Stuffing feelings doesn't do any good for the child, the parents, or the relationship. It tells the child that you are threatened by her feelings or she gets the message that you don't care to understand her feelings. The child picks up on your attitude and learns that expressing or even having feelings is not okay. The child decides that the feelings that accompany the ups and downs of her daily life are not worthwhile. In a child's logic, if her feelings are not worthwhile, she is not worthwhile. If this unfeeling pattern repeats itself over and over, the child quickly learns both to suppress the feelings and especially to hide them from her parents.
Even more devastating than being uncaring is responding to a child's feelings with anger messages, "I don't want to hear any more bellowing about that stupid fish!" The fear of parents' reactions to her feelings turns a child into a feeling stuffer.
On the positive side, picture what happens when a child feels free to express herself and a parent accepts her feelings. Consider this example: "Daddy, the necklace Grandma gave me for my birthday broke." Dad stops what he is doing and focuses on his child, looking into her eyes and placing his hand around her shoulder. He says, "I'm sorry. That was such a special necklace." Both his verbal and his body language convey: "I am available to you; your feelings are important to me. You are important to me." His reaction frees the child to tell him more about her feelings and to work through them by talking to him. Instead of retreating into her shell or erupting into a tantrum, she has been given a way to express her sorrow. And he has boosted her self-worth by accepting her feelings, which are a reflection of herself.
DO YOU OWE YOUR CHILD SELF-ESTEEM?
Parents may misunderstand the meaning of self-esteem and feel that this is just one more thing they are required to give their child along with regular meals and a warm winter jacket. They guard against anything that may undercut self-esteem – to the point where it becomes ridiculous. ("oh, Billy, you don't really sing flat. You're just tonally challenged.") They measure self-esteem daily, as one might take a temperature. ("Julie's self-esteem is low today. Her big brother beat her at checkers last night.")
Every infant whose needs are met has self-esteem built in. Like an arborist caring for a tree, your job is to nurture what's there, do what you can to structure your child's environment so that she grows strong and straight, and avoid whittling away at the tender branches. You can't build your child's self- esteem compliment by compliment, activity by activity. Parents are already overloaded with guilt because they may not be doing enough to foster their child's self-worth. You don't need a degree in psychology to raise a confident child. Much of parenting is easy and fun. Hold your baby a lot, respond sensitively to her needs, enjoy your baby. Then sit back and enjoy the person whose self-esteem is developing naturally.