Building A Child’s Self-Esteem

By: Pascal Fulginiti

Self-esteem has always been important in every day life. The term “self-esteem” refers to how children feel about themselves. Studies show that children who think very little of themselves may do inadequately in school. But those who truly believe in themselves can really excel. Children who have a high sense of self-regard are willing to tackle tough problems. They are willing to try something new without hesitation. Even if they do not get the correct answer the first time, they will keep on trying until they get it right. They are somewhat intrinsically motivated.

One of the most important ways children develop their self-esteem is by feeling competent and capable. The best way to develop this feeling of competence is by teaching a child a new skill. Whether it is to tie her shoes or to ride her bike, a parent is helping build the child’s self-esteem.

Here are 10 easy steps to further develop your child’s sense of self-esteem and self-concept:

1. The first thing a parent has to do is to eliminate the word “can’t” from their child’s vocabulary. When children say, “I can’t,” they either mean, “I don’t know how to,” “I am not able to,” or “I don’t want to.” When a child begins a statement with the words “I can’t,” he usually does not put any effort at the task at hand. Eventually this leads to a negative and distorted self-image of himself. “I can’t” then develops into “I’m inadequate,” “I’m not capable,” and even, “I’m stupid.” Children with a high sense of self-esteem look at the situation and say, “I wonder if there is anything I could have done differently” or “I wonder what went wrong.”

2. Parent’s expectations will shape the child’s sense of self-esteem. If a parent believes the child can do well, the child will probably think so too. On the other hand, sometimes parents can hold expectations that are too high. The parent who anticipates every school assignment to be perfect, who mandates that his child become an honor student, or who contrasts his child’s potential with another child, may actually harm the child’s sense of self-esteem. A parent should give the child age appropriate and developmentally appropriate tasks and praise the child for his efforts. One afternoon, I walked into Stephanie’s bedroom to find her bed creatively made. It wasn’t the way I wanted her to make her bed, but at least she made an effort. I stated, “Honey, your room really looks different with the bed creatively made.” What else could I have said? I did not want to make a negative comments like, “You call that a made bed?”

3. You can also teach your child to see the positive side of his inadequacy. When your child is unsuccessful, try to find something he can discover from his errors. You might ask, “What would you do differently next time?” Allow the child to contemplate and untangle his own dilemma. Be sure to let your child know that you are proud of him for trying. You might say, “I think you are a success because you built up enough courage to go back and tried to correct the mistake.”

4. Sometimes let your child “accidentally-on-purpose” over-hear some of his accomplishments and achievements. It never ceases to amaze me the way we have such a difficult time to take in compliments and saying “thank you.” I say to people, “Gee, what a wonderful dress you are wearing,” they respond, “Oh, it’s just an old rag.” I say, “I love your hair cut,” they respond, “I think he cut it too short.” With these kinds of role models no wonder we have some children who have trouble accepting a compliment. But when they overhear you talking on the telephone about what a good job they did cleaning their room, or how much they have improved in their reading comprehension, they will believe what they hear (or in this case, over-hear). So try planning moments when your child can accidentally-on-purpose overhear their accomplishments and achievements.

5. Exhibit your child’s finest work. I’m convinced that the reason why we had students with high sense of self-esteem at the day care was because of our hall of fame. The children's work was exhibited for all guests to see. Have your child choose a school paper, a drawing, or a photo that shows some recent accomplishment. Put the accomplishment at the child's eye level and in an area where the child can see it a few times a day. Accomplishment can be placed on the fridge door or on the child’s desk.

6. As your child grows older give them more responsibilities and more independence. Both are important for acquiring self-esteem. As parents, we tend to decrease the amount of responsibilities and choices our children are allowed to make. Our parenting techniques become more rigorous as our child enters adolescence. At least once a year, reassess the rules you set for your child. Ask your child what he thinks about the house rules and regulations. Get his input and see what he considers to be fair. You will be surprised at what kids can come up with.

7. Never compare siblings. Comparing children is harmful to their pride. If you have more than one child, try not to say things like, “Your brother always brought home straight A’s. Why can’t you?” Instead, I counsel parents to never compare but to contrast. This helps each child discover and experience her own individuality, accomplishments and strengths.

8. Have your child exposed to two unique photographs. These photographs should be placed where the child will see them a few times a day. I recommend either on their desk or near their bedside. The first one should be a family photograph. If parents are separated, have a recent photograph of the child with both parents or two separate photographs. The second photograph would be of your child doing something she adores. My daughter enjoys cooking, so we have a photograph of her making pasta with her grandmother. The first photograph will remind your child that she is loved, and the second photograph reminds your child of things she loves to do. Change the photographs often and watch her self-esteem develop even more.

9. Make sure you allow your child to err. That’s right! Some parents make such an effort to help their children to be successful in everything that most parents do not let their kids learn from their mistakes. Whether their kids are doing their homework, making their bed or developing a new skill, these parents jump in to help with “Here, let me do that for you,” or “Is that the best you can do?” Parents think that they are helping the child but the message they are really sending is “You are not efficient at doing this by yourself. I must help you or you will fail.” If this sounds like you, try taking a hands-off attitude for a while and allow your child to experience successes and failures. In the winter of 1998, Anthony attempted to skate for the first time. Stephanie informed him that he might fall. She then added, “But if you do, this is the easiest way to get up.” She continued by demonstrating how to get up from the sheet of ice. She demonstrated by crawling on her hands and knees, placing the left skate on the ice, then the right skate, centering herself and elevating her body. When he did fall he was able to get up without any assistance. It was ME who thought he wasn’t capable of getting up all by himself. In a way, I was sad to see that he was able to do things without my help. This was the first time when he did not need daddy’s help.

10. Speak to your child in a tone that confirms your faith in her. When Stephanie was studying for her grade two spelling test, she was challenged by a few words. Instead of saying, “We’ll see if you can remember all those words,” I said, “Knowing you, I know you can remember these words.” She went to school the following day knowing that someone had faith in her. She reported to me the same evening that she felt confident to know that someone had faith in her. She received 20 out of 20. We were both proud of her accomplishment. So the words we use as parents can either build our children’s self-esteem or destroy it.

During one of my parenting workshops, I made two columns on the blackboard. For first column I asked the parents to think of all the phrases we say to our children that destroy their self-esteem. For the second column I asked them to think of all the phrases we say to our children that builds their self-esteem. An astounding thing took place. Most parents came up with more than one phrase for the first column. It appeared to be an unconstrained response. But when I asked them, “Now tell me the phrases you use at home to encourage your child’s self-esteem, it was like pulling teeth. One father from the group asked me to clarify myself a little more. It puzzled me that I had to wait for the answers. In any event, after much thought, we came up with a list. Here is the actual list the parents came up with that evening.


All of these negative comments stamp in the child’s mind the idea that the child is incompetent, a disappointment and a failure.


Take a few minutes to identify the positive performances you observe from your child. For example, when your child does his homework without you nagging, say, “You are being responsible.” When your child cleans his room, take a minute to say, “You are being very helpful and organized.” When your child completes his schoolwork without your help, say, “Look at how quickly you got through all those math problems without my help, you are very independent.” When your child comes dressed (even though it may not be exactly what you wanted him to wear) say, “You are creative.” Each time a child hears these positive messages he begins to think of himself as an accountable, considerate, charitable, accommodating, and artistic individual and what a wonderful self-portrayal you have helped your child create.

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