Can Your Child's Self Esteem Be Too High?
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
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 over-inflated view of his own abilities, or a conviction that he's more important than other people. But that's not self esteem. That's arrogance, and it derives from insecurity. Low self-esteem can express itself in self-deprecating behavior, but more often expresses itself as arrogance, a sense that we are better than others. This is a defense against a 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.
Step One: A positive relationship with you, which creates a solid core of self-love, or stable internal happiness regardless of external events.
Support him to actually accomplish things he can be proud of, whether
it's learning to turn on the light switch or bringing home a terrific
Step 1: The core of self-esteem is "Stable Internal Happiness," or a sense that oneself and the world are both good, despite the inevitable setbacks. While some people have a natural tendency to better moods and more optimism than others, "stable internal happiness" can be fostered in any child by thoughtful parenting.
1. What kind of parenting creates stable internal happiness? The same kind that creates a secure attachment bond, since the two are inextricably linked. Parenting that is responsive to this unique child's needs, that stays connected even while the child becomes increasingly independent, that accepts and affirms all of who the child is, including those messy, challenging, negative human emotions. Parenting that stays connected to the child while guiding her, that is always available for reassurance. Parenting that communicates that this child is wonderful and adored, exactly as she is.
2. This does NOT mean praising a child for traits or abilities she doesn't have, such as perfection. While affirmation, encouragement and acknowledgment are critical for developing high self esteem, praise as we usually think of it -- for specific traits, like being smart -- usually undermines it. Acknowledging that a child has worked hard reinforces his sense that he is capable. Telling him that 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. (What to Say Instead of Praising.)
3. Keep your relationship with your child supportive, no matter what, at each age. This seems obvious, of course, but there are times when staying positive regarding your tantruming toddler, recalcitrant ten year old, or rude teenager can seem almost impossible. I know that when my child lashes out at me, I’m tempted to withdraw from her emotionally. But giving her the cold shoulder doesn’t teach her anything positive about how to build a relationship. Worse, it undermines the supportive relationship that is her best protection throughout childhood. Remind yourself that when kids are at their least lovable is when they need your love the most.
4. Discipline 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 ("I know you're mad but 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.
Kids who are lucky enough to experience unconditional love and acceptance develop stable internal happiness early (maybe by ten or twelve). 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 love our kids and accept who they are is that it helps them to accept and appreciate themselves, which allows them to develop the skills they need to master their worlds. But that isn't enough to develop self esteem. Which brings us to:
Step 2: Self Esteem derives from real accomplishment. Telling kids we love them is not enough to develop self-esteem.
Of course 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 evaluated 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.
Self esteem comes from the pride of knowing, deep inside, that if we work hard at something, we can accomplish something worth accomplishing: that we have what it takes to bring our dreams into reality. Ultimately, self esteem is a result of real accomplishment. It starts with feeling loved, because only kids who feel completely loved tackle and master hard things. But self esteem is impossible without real accomplishment.
And that, of course, means tackling things that are hard. Which means, as parents, encouraging and expecting our children to do some hard things. Age appropriate things, step by step, with appropriate help from us, but things that tax them enough to help them to, as your grandparents would have said, build character.
That 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.
Children who are able to apply themselves in pursuit of a goal are developing what we call Mastery. For more on how to help kids develop Mastery, you may want to check out my book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. Chapter 5, Raising a Child Who Achieves with Joy and Self- Esteem: Mastery Coaching, gives you the hands-on tools you need to give your child the best start in developing self esteem and mastery.
For more on self esteem: Is Amy Chua right about how kids develop self esteem?