By Dr. Andrea Weiner
The concept of self-esteem is not a new concept and it is one most people recognize as an important characteristic to have. Simply defined, self-esteem can be viewed as the way a person values oneself. Most parents, when asked, what they would like for their children to have in life, the notion of having self-esteem would be high on the list. But can too much self-esteem in children create power struggles among friends, create an overly superior attitude towards others, and a lack of resiliency in the face of a possible failure? It can and here's why.
Self-esteem focuses on the strengths of an individual to create a sense of personal value or self-worth. Back in the 60s and 70s when the self-esteem movement was at its height, parents were told to praise their children for their positive attributes to build high levels of self-esteem. Praises like "You are so smart", "You are beautiful", or "You're the best baseball player on the team" was viewed as a way to build up a child's self image and worth.
The problem with this approach is if children do not believe this positive praise about themselves, no amount of words from others can alter their doubting beliefs. The flip side of this is that a child never learns to accept their weaknesses. We are all imperfect, and those unacceptable weaknesses get squelched and become unbearable "secrets" we don't want anyone to discover.
There is a line where self-esteem tips over into superiority and dominance and the false assumption one is better than the other. Those squelched weaknesses get covered up with braggadocio and creates false esteem that leads to condescension, superiority, and power struggles in friendships and other relationships.
Self-esteem without self-knowledge is arrogance. It can stop children from persevering towards a defined goal when the "going gets tough" because false self-esteem is superficial and doesn't allow one to access the deep reserves that true self-esteem can provide.
To insure children develop true self-worth, here are some tips parents can do:
- Use praise appropriately: Praise is important for children but it needs to be specific to the accomplishment. This allows them to know exactly what they did to deserve the praise and it is directed back to them. For example, "You should be very proud of that "A" on your spelling test since you really studied hard to learn those new words. Good job!" This lets them know exactly why they are being praised, which increases their internal validation about their talents and efforts.
- Help children practice empathetic acceptance: Empathetic acceptance embraces all aspects of who we are including our strengths and weaknesses. Helping children to be aware, without judgment, that their weaknesses and limitations allow them to see a complete picture of themselves, not just the "edited" version. Accepting oneself with all of our frailties and good qualities is the true act of self-love.
- Teach empathy on how it feels to "be in someone else's shoes": Ask your child how it would feel if someone acted better than them and tried to boss them around. Would he/she feel angry, sad, or upset? Point out it's great to love and appreciate oneself but not when it crosses the line of superiority and smugness.
- Provide experiences that require effort to learn success: The greatest self-esteem experience is when a child can succeed through hard work, effort, and working through any possible fear or limitations. By supporting, encouraging, and allowing children to go through the throes of a challenging situation or circumstance can turn it into a life changing "can do" experience and lead to higher levels success and self-worth.
Dr. Andrea Weiner, is the founder of Emotionally Smart Beginnings, educational products teaching emotional and social skills for children and parents. She is the author of The Best Investment: Unlocking the Secrets of Social Success for Your Child and More Than Saying I Love You: 4 Powerful Steps That Help Children Love Themselves. Her books have made her a popular media guest, parent coach, lecturer and workshop leader. For tips on how to help your child develop life long skills based on social and emotional intelligence and well-being visit: www.drandie.com. Permission granted for use on DrLaura.com