Child Behavior: Foster your child's self-esteem

Here are some ideas parents can implement to help foster and improve self-esteem in their children.

1) Children need unconditional love and acceptance. This doesn’t mean that anything goes. Limit-setting, based upon clear, reasonable and attainable rules for a child to follow, is a necessary and important part of any child’s environment. Limits set the boundaries for a child’s behavior as they’re growing up and makes them feel more secure. But be mindful that when you reprimand a child, make it clear it was their behavior only that was unacceptable: separate the doer from the deed.

2) Pay attention and really listen to them — not while watching TV or paying the bills, rather in an all-inclusive focused way. In their book, Everyday Blessings, Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn define “mindful parenting” as listening and attending to our children in a manner that makes them feel really valued and also helps us as parents unclutter and prioritize the time spent with our children in our multifaceted post-modern lives. When we really listen to what a child has to say, we show that we value him., and give him time to clarify, express, and understand his feelings more completely.

3) Offer choices and support our children when they take a “healthy risk.” This helps them gain confidence in their decision-making ability and increases the child’s recognition that you have faith in their judgment.

Allow children to engage in these new and some- times challenging activities, but be mindful to refrain from inter- vening to save the child from potential frustration.

4) Let your child know that making mistakes is an inevitable part of life — learning to cope with that fact is an important lesson to learn and one that should begin early.
Acknowledging, accepting, recovering and learning from mistakes sends an important message to your child. It tells them it’s okay not to be perfect, and will increase their ability to explore new things with confidence.

5) Encourage and reward exploration in your child. There is a world of difference between encouragement and praise. Praise rewards the success of the task while encouragement rewards the effort of the person. Read and listen to these two responses: 

  • “Look what you have accomplished — you must be very proud of yourself”;  or
  • “That’s a pretty picture — I’m proud of you.” 

Encourage freely, but keep praise at a minimum
Too much praise from adults can cause a child to become a “praise junkie,” falling victim to the “Good job! Good job!” Syndrome. Children praised or rewarded constantly will only perform tasks they know will result in adult approval, this in turn diminishes their self-esteem by creating the pressure to “perform” with a continual need for approval from others.

So keep encouraging freely and often, but keep praise and rewards at a minimum.
Fostering self-esteem is not simple; it is an ongoing process. And helping a child who has low self-esteem can be even more difficult. But I’ve seen many children and adolescents with a diminished sense of self completely turn that around when achieving success in just one area.

The best way to help enhance a child’s self-esteem is to create an environment that continually reinforces the probability of a child succeeding, and for the child to be aware that his or her own abilities contributed to that success. 

Like in that classic story, The Little Engine that Could, once our children think they can, they will!

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D. is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College.

Other articles by Paul Schwartz