You may have failed that test. But you are not a failure. You may have made a big mess with the paint. But you are not a mess.
Our self-concept is how we view ourselves, while our self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves. Our self-worth is how we view our value. A child, who is developing these, turns to their parents for cues on who they are and how they should feel about themselves. They are putting their self-worth on the line with everything they do. As Brene Brown says in I Thought It Was Just Me, But It Isn’t, when we have our self-worth riding on something we cannot control, like how others perceive us, we are putting our self-worth at risk (page 211). This is what kids do every day. They are putting their perceived value at risk because they base it on something they cannot control.
As their parents, we have the opportunity to set them up for success. Children who have a strong self-concept typically do better with friends or school. They go into the classroom believing they can succeed. Children who have a low self-concept often won’t even begin a homework assignment because they believe before they begin that they will fail. Our daughter has a shy nature, especially when she is uncomfortable. But she is willing to try because she knows she has a chance to succeed. And if she doesn’t, Mom and Dad will still think she’s awesome. We focus on the learning process, not on the end result. We focus on how hard she tried, instead of if she won.
Here are a few simple ways to help build your child’s self-worth. Can you think of any others?
- Notice what they are doing, not how well they are doing it. Let them help. Allow them to do chores with you, even if they don’t have the skills to do them well yet. Focusing on the learning process and encouraging them along the way is more important than the end result of a spotless house. But do not go over the top. If they failed, do not lie to them. Tell them you are proud of them for trying. Ask them if they tried their hardest. If they didn’t, ask what they can do about it next time. We live in an achievement-based culture and kids of all ages are expected to have great test scores, play sports the best, and get into great colleges. This is causing too much stress on our kids today. We need to step back from being so focused on their achievements and causing unnecessary stress on their growing minds and bodies.
- Show them unconditional love. Love them even when they make a sad choice or miss the mark. We cannot allow kids to think our love depends on their performance, nor can we let them think failure is fatal. They do not have to get straight As to be loved. They do not have to be the best soccer player on the team to be loved. Show them: hugs, smiles, eye-contact, high fives. Tell them: I love you. You tried hard.
- Allow them to make choices. When we do not allow our kids to make choices we communicate to them that they are not capable of making decisions and they cannot survive without us doing it for them. Consult them and help them, and set appropriate limits, but allow them to practice the skills of decision making, even if it means they fail. Kids need to learn they are capable enough to make decisions, strong enough to handle the consequences, and able to grow from the process. Learning how to make wise choices is an accomplishment that will help build their sense of value. Allow them to struggle if they make poor choices and allow them to feel accomplished when they overcome the struggle and figure things out themselves.
- Focus on their strengths. Observe them and see what their strengths and natural gifts are. Then, foster their growth in those strengths. Point out how kind you daughter is. Tell your son you admire his ability to keep building the block tower even though it fell.
- Spend time with them. There is perhaps nothing more important to a child’s self-worth than the time you spend with them. Their value will grow when they know Mom and Dad want to be with them and love them regardless of their achievements. Giving your child your undivided attention and pursuing time with them shows your love. This is the time when you assist in their character and self-worth development. Even the older child or teenager who may seem like they want nothing to do with you. Pursue your kids and time with them. It is precious.
By Emily Scott, PhD
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