“Do as I say and not as I do”. It is a fundamental flaw in parenting that we eventually grasp and recognise: our children mimic our behavior. Our children do as we do, rather than what we say. This challenges us to practise what we preach and walk our own talk, which can prove tricky when dealing with issues like self-esteem, something many of us are still trying to figure out ourselves.
Sometime between the births of my second and third children, I acknowledged, with the same degree of horror caused by the discovery of post-birth hemorrhoids that I was suffering from low self-esteem! I was unable, at the time, to convince myself that I was still good at anything meaningful or worthy of posting on Facebook!
I pondered this dilemma. Had I always had low self-esteem, or was it another unexpected by-product of motherhood? How could I change the status quo and save my children from the same fate?
Building a robust and resilient self-esteem
It took a while to find the answer, but with time came clarity and when I uncovered the simple truth of how to build a robust and resilient self-esteem that could endure the inevitable trials and tribulations of life, it fundamentally changed my relationship with myself and informed a new way of parenting. Up to that point, my self-concept or identity (the hat stand on which self-esteem and self-worth hang) had been formed entirely around my external achievements. Which letter of the alphabet came after the sports team I represented, what marks appeared on my report card, how many badges peppered my school blazer, what was the size of my pay check and how quickly had I got back into my pre-pregnancy jeans?
Birthing three children in quick succession eradicated my glowing CV and offered no viable opportunities to create a new one in the short to medium term. This reality was a blessing and a curse. It prompted a morbid dose of ‘Why does anybody love me anymore?’ Yet it provided the blank canvas I needed to hold the colours and texture of a new self-concept that flowed from expanding my self-awareness beyond my worldly achievements to include an intimate knowledge of my character and quirks and a loving self-acceptance that left room for subsequent growth and development.
Raising children with intimate self-awareness and loving self-acceptance
Our children carry a blank canvas on which they too will paint the colours and shapes of their identity. This can prove hugely challenging within the context of our techno-crazy, competition-driven world. The default is to shape their identity in the same way we have shaped our own, around what they look like, what they own and what they achieve. This approach tethers them to a roller coaster existence of ups and downs, emotional overload and a vulnerable, transient self-esteem that lacks grit and empathy. However, as parents, we can help them develop the intimate self-awareness and loving self-acceptance that leads to a robust and resilient self-esteem that creates a strong foundation for life.
Here are some useful tips to help you along the way.
Create an environment of unconditional love and communicate it
Create an environment of unconditional love. Your child needs to know that they are not only loved when they are being good or doing well, but also when you disagree with them or they have failed to live up to your expectations. Use your actions and words to communicate unconditional love: “Yes, I am angry with you right now, but I still love you very much. Nothing you do will ever change that.” It is within this cocoon of unconditional love that your child will find the courage to explore the nuances of their persona and the unobstructed honesty necessary for intimate self-awareness and loving self-acceptance.
Talk character, not just ability
Your child is not a human ‘doing’, but rather a human being! Talk character and not just ability and remember to praise the character behind the action! For example, rather than simply saying, “That is a lovely picture,” consider, “That is a lovely picture, you have a fantastic eye for detail.” Expand your comment so that your child has the opportunity to develop additional self-awareness. Another example, “I love watching you play tennis, you have amazing concentration and focus. I was also really impressed with your sportsmanship,” shows encouragement of character and not just of an action.
When you have more than one child, allow spaces for differences within your family and communicate this. “You and your brother are different people with different character strengths, abilities and interests.” A little game, or bedtime ritual, is wonderful for exploring your child’s character together and discovering and accepting differences within the family. When you go in to say good night to your child, pose this question to them: “Why do I love you?” It is most likely that they will have a fairly undefined response at first! Something like, “Because you are my mother.” or “Because I am your child.” or “Because you do!” Listen to their response and then offer your own. “I love you just because you are you.” Continue with the next question. “What do you think makes you, you? Let’s think of some ideas together.”
This question opens up the opportunity for you and your child to explore their physical attributes, talents and, most importantly, their character together. For example, “The way your nose crinkles when you laugh; your loving nature and your energy and enthusiasm. I love your independence and courage to try new things. I love your sense of humour and the way you make me laugh.”
If you play this game frequently with your child, your list will keep expanding together, bringing about wonderful self-awareness and validation. When your child experiences a disappointment, you can simply pose the question, “ Why do I love you?” and balance the disappointment with a view of their strengths and potential.
If you have more than one child, play the game with all of them independently. Every so often, when you get them together, pose the question to them as a group so that they can gain awareness into their differences and similarities.
Balance praise with perspective and honesty
Praise your child and focus on the positive. We often tend to get sucked into what they are doing wrong and allow it to overshadow what they are doing right.
Balance praise with the knowledge that no one is perfect and help your child explore his or her own areas of development in a safe way. It is often best to start with the positive and then gently expose the area of development. For example: “Johnny, you are great fun to play with, but you are going to have to learn to be a little more gentle, especially with your little sister.” or “Sophie, I really admire your determination, but you need to become aware of when your determination turns to stubbornness.”
Provide the opportunity for your child to take ownership of their areas of development before passing your own judgement. For example: “I see you did not do very well in your math test. Why do you think that is?” If your child does not respond, you could follow with a few probing questions like, “What parts of your work do you feel you understand and what parts do you need a little more help with?” “How did you prepare for this test? Do you think that had an impact on the result? What can you do differently next time?”
Never compare your child to a sibling or another child. Keep the conversation focused on them and their character strengths and areas of development.
Believe in your child’s resourcefulness and grit … and communicate it
When your child hits an obstacle or has to face a challenging situation, resist the temptation to jump in and fix it. Rather express the belief in your child’s ability to be resourceful and work through it. You might say, “Yes, you do find reading hard right now, but I know you will get it right with a little bit of practice.” or “This is a very tough situation. How do you think you could handle it? That’s a good approach!”
Appreciate their efforts and communicate it. “I can see that was really hard for you. Well done for persisting, it may not feel like it now, but your effort will pay off in the long run.”
Be open and transparent – don’t be afraid to say sorry
Be open and honest about your own strengths and areas of development. This allows your child to be open and honest about theirs. Don’t be afraid to say sorry when you make mistakes or things go wrong! For example, “I am sorry I rushed you and lost my temper. I am going to work hard at becoming more patient.” This encourages your child to do the same.
After an altercation and once the emotions have settled, it is useful to brainstorm what you and your child could each do differently the next time.
Share your developmental path with your child. For example, “When I was your age I was a terrible procrastinator. Running my own company made me realise I had to break that bad habit, and become more disciplined.” Alternatively, “I was very disappointed when I did not get selected for the team, but it helped me develop resilience and self-belief.” Or, “The first time I stood up to a bully was a very powerful moment in my life.”
Acknowledging the harsh truth
While parenting in this way saw my children flourish and brought a joyful depth of understanding and trust to my relationships with them, a harsh truth posed a constant threat to our progress.
The pattern or habit of validating my own self-esteem through external success was still ingrained and as hard as this was to admit, it had extended its radar to include the successes of my children. Time and time again, when I felt the uncomfortable tug of my own lack, I would look to my children’s successes to boost and bolster me. Conversely, when they were failing to live up to my expectations of success I felt the overwhelming need to push them to work harder or practise longer in order to perform better… so that I could feel better. I was horrified!
Once the pattern was exposed, I committed myself to breaking it, finally. This required me to sit with the discomfort of my own self-esteem issues rather than passing them on to my children. My ‘dealing-with-my-issues’ barometer became clear and simple: when my children were happily getting on with the mixed bag of successes, failures, silliness, adventures and fun that was their childhood right … and I was squirming with discomfort … I was doing something right!
The beautiful and unexpected truth was that through helping my children develop a robust, resilient self-esteem, I was able to discover my own.
Written by Linda Joyce Bruce.
Parent resources to support the contents of this blog: http://www.cooltobeme.com/shop/
Children 5-7 years: Feeling Happy and Safe storybook set or @ home box, with particular focus on the Sharing story with the motto, “Everything begins to shine when I decide to share what’s mine.”
Children 7-9 years: Being confident and responsible storybook set or @ home box, with particular focus on the ‘Being Confident’ story with the motto, “I am me, look and see, it’s just the way I want to be.”
Children 9-10 years: Discovering my inner world storybook set or @ home box, with particular focus on ‘My special gift’ story with the motto “Use the gifts that you have been given to share and build the world you live in.”