Not long ago a friend of mine had a baby. As I stared into the window at the rows of infants lying in their bassinettes, I was struck with how similar they looked. Yes, some had dark hair, some curly hair, and some had no hair at all. Some were larger or weighed a bit more than others, but mostly they were all pretty much the same. What would they be like, I asked myself, if they came back as adults for a reunion? What would we find?
Both research and commonsense tells us that we'd find that some people took life by its tail and made the most of it. Some would be successes in business or art. Others would be exceptional parents, teachers, lawyers, nurses, etc. Statistics also tell us that we'd find others whose futures had taken quite a different turn. Some would have addictions to drugs or alcohol. Others somehow would just be unable to make their lives work.
I started to think about what caused these incredibly varied outcomes: How could all these children who started out so equal have ended up so differently? Oh, I suppose some of the discrepancy could be passed off to genetics, but what about the rest? Did a fairy fly through the room with magic dust and sprinkle some but not others? No, not unless reality was created by Walt Disney.
In the last 25 years of my working with people in my therapy practice and as a parent educator, I’ve discovered that the single most important factor that determines whether children grow up to be happy and successful is their self-esteem. A child’s self-esteem affects every area of her existence—from the friends she chooses, to how well she does in school, to what kind of job she pursues, to even the person she chooses to marry. But what exactly is this illusive, intangible thing called self-esteem?
Defined simply, self-esteem is the sense of being lovable and capable. When these two qualities are in sync, a child has high self-esteem. Children need first to know that they are loved and accepted for who they are. Then, with this as a basis, their natural impulse is to take that love and learn to contribute it to the world in constructive ways. It’s not hard to see that self-esteem is the best gift you can give your children.
As you work to give your child this marvelous gift, the most important thing to understand is this: Self esteem evolves in kids primarily through the quality of our relationships with them. For the first several years of their lives you are their major influence. Later on, teachers and friends come into the picture. But especially at the beginning, you’re it with a capital I.
We Are Mirrors for Our Kids
Because children see parents as authority figures, they think that the way you treat them is the way they deserve to be treated: “What you say about me is what I am,” is a literal truth to your child. Consequently, when children are treated with respect, they conclude that they deserve respect and, hence, develop self-respect. When children are treated with acceptance, they develop self-acceptance; when they are cherished, they conclude that they deserve to be loved and they develop self-esteem. Conversely, if they are mistreated or abused, they conclude that they deserve that, too.
Parents are, in effect, mirrors: What we reflect back to our kids becomes the basis for their self-image, which in turn influences all areas of their lives. To put it another way, who our children are is not nearly as important as who they think they are.
Shower Your Children with Love
Conveying our love to our children is priority number one in building a healthy sense of self-esteem in our children. It needs to come before any other aspect of the parenting process, such as, setting limits or correcting behavior. Your kids need to know, first and foremost that no matter what they do, while you may not like or approve of their actions, you continue to love them.
Children need tangible demonstrations of your love. They, like adults, need to be told directly and often, “I love you.” I’ve never had anyone come up to me at the end of a parenting seminar and say, “Could you please tell my husband to stop telling me he loves me?” We can never hear "I love you" too often. Our children don’t automatically feel loved simply because they are part of a family.
Your unconditional love needs to be the basis of your relationship with your children. Unconditional love is loving your kids for who they are, not for what they do. Our kids shouldn’t have to earn our love, acceptance, or respect. It is their birthright and should be given freely.
Unconditional love requires loving your kids regardless of what you expect them to be and, most difficult, no matter how they act. By this I don’t mean that we like or accept inappropriate behavior, but with unconditional love we love the child even at those times when we dislike what he or she does.
I’m not going to pretend that this is easy. It isn’t. Unconditional love isn’t something you will achieve every minute of every day. But, it is the thought we must hold in our hearts every single day. The underlying message of unconditional love is, “I love you no matter what you do. I am committed to you 100 percent, and will be here for you through thick or thin.” These kinds of messages are surefire builders of healthy self-esteem.