More than fulfilling children’s material wants, it’s important to build their self-esteem

As a young parent, on birthdays and festivals, I’ve often wondered what I can give my child that she will cherish and appreciate. I give her what I ‘perceived’ she wanted — a Barbie doll, a Spiderman costume, a cowboy hat…. But as I grew older and wiser, it dawned on me that material things give momentary happiness and that I should not limit gifting to important occasions only. Instead, I needed to give her something every day that she would value for life. And when I became a teacher, this belief was strengthened. I believed it was within my powers to make a difference to the lives of my students.

What then is that elusive gift?

One of the most powerful and enduring gifts we can give our children is a positive sense of self, in other words, self-esteem. It will help them set goals, cope with problems, relate to others, take risks, contribute to society, to reach their potential, and become happy self-fulfilled adults.

A child is not born with self-esteem but it is something that grows throughout his lifetime. It develops from the child’s experiences and how others react to him. More failures than successes cause chronic frustration. This, in turn, results in persistent anger and the child is unable to adjust, adapt and cope with the situation whereas when successes exceed failures, individuals feel positive about themselves and grow up to be confident, willing to take risks and face challenging circumstances with equanimity.

Children’s feelings of self-esteem are highly influenced by their relationship with their parents. They crave parental approval. When parents are overburdened or worried, they are sometimes oblivious to their child’s needs. For example, when marriages breakdown or there is serious marital discord, a chronic illness or monetary constraints, children usually lose self-esteem. They feel insecure and their sense of belonging is undermined. They may feel alienated and guilty (feeling that they somehow have caused the problem).

Filled with self-doubt

Children with learning difficulties suffer more than the normal stress and strain of school life. They are also miserable at home as their overanxious and overambitious parents pester them to perform better in academics. These children often talk to themselves in a self-defeating way. Their inner language is filled with “I am clumsy”, “I am stupid”, “I am dumb” and so on. Sadly, parents are often not the best people when it comes to helping their child with academics. Instead of home being a refuge from the pressures of school, parent becomes “teacher” and all school-related problems and tensions surface at home, exacerbated by the parents' own anxieties and insecurities. The turbulence of this period combined with self-doubt and confusion makes it doubly painful and difficult.

Self-esteem comes from a sense of self worth and belonging. These feelings of belonging are fostered when both parents and teachers find ways to communicate with respect and make their expectations clear and by providing children with opportunities to be successful. We need to make children understand they do not have to know everything but they do have to know where to go to get help. Self-reliance should be encouraged. Another strategy to foster self-esteem is by increasing children’s feelings of self-control — when we teach children that they cannot always control what happens to him but that they can always control their reaction to a situation, and that when they feel they are the victims, their self-esteem is low.

Every parent and teacher must make children understand that while they expect them to do their best; they must also realise they are not perfect. There is no reason to pretend that we adults are perfect. Children learn a great deal from seeing us recognise our shortcomings, admit our mistakes and work on correcting them. Having strong self-esteem is a big part of growing up. It helps an individual face a tough situation and make independent decisions. Especially under peer pressure, children who have a strong sense of their own worth are in a better position to make life enhancing decisions.

When as adults we are duty bound to protect children from injury and harm, we also have the responsibility to build their self-esteem. This is possible when we accept them as individuals with an independent mind and values.

(The writer is a Remedial Educator)

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