Toddlers and Self-Esteem
By Skye Thomas
Honestly, self-esteem is not taught to little babies and toddlers. It's an innate sense that drives them to roll over, to crawl, to walk, to begin speaking, and to learn how to get their basic needs met. Children are naturally self-confident. Babies and toddlers don't say, "What if I can't accomplish this goal? Perhaps I should settle for less and just do without that toy. I don't really need to learn to walk. I can lay here forever." We don't have to coach a baby to feel good about themselves so that they'll learn how to hold their own bottle or how to manipulate a toy. The toy exists and they simply want to reach for it. The bottle is there and they simply want to hold onto it. Learning new things is just what they do without any thoughts about self-esteem and their ability to succeed. Either we reinforce their sense of self, or we systematically destroy it.
Why would anyone destroy a child's self-esteem? Rarely do parents and other adults in a child's life make a conscious decision that they want to raise a child to have low self-esteem. Typically, the parents have no idea they are even doing it and worse, if you tell them so, they become quite defensive about it. After all, they love their child so how can it be their fault that their child's self-esteem is low? The word 'parent' is meant to describe any adult in the role of guardianship. A 'parent' is a steward who must watch over the child's well-being and insure that nothing happens to mess with the child's development.
It's the parents' job to protect the child's self-esteem by setting up and monitoring their environment so that the child can grow, learn, reach, aspire, and accomplish goals. Through real accomplishments and real achievements, real self-esteem is reinforced. Children know when they are being handed a ribbon just for showing up and win they are receiving a real award that took hard work and determination to earn it. The parent doesn't give the child self-esteem, but sets up opportunities and lessons that allows the child to develop and grow into a balanced sense of self that knows their own personal limits and their own personal gifts.
It's the parents' job to make sure that siblings, family friends, teachers, and others who come into contact with the child are not allowed to verbally tear a child's sense of identity apart. Nobody, including the parents, should be allowed to belittle the child, abuse the child, or in any way make the child feel that they are an inferior human being. No name-calling should ever be allowed. The child should not be allowed to say such things, as "I'm stupid." The child needs to be taught the power of words and thoughts and if someone calls the child stupid, dumb, or in any other way ridicules the child's ability to accomplish their own dreams, the parent has an obligation to stand up to the bully and say that they are wrong. Children need to hear adults speaking up in their defense.
Through trust and honesty the adult earns the child's respect and in times of doubt, hearing a trusted adult say that they believe in the child's ability to succeed can mean the world to that child. If the adult is someone who always offers sappy unearned praise for inferior performances, then that adult is not going to be a real cheerleader in the child's eyes. They will discount that parent's statement as simply being prejudice or worse they'll think the adult is lying. It can backfire causing the child to assume that since the adult lies to them about their abilities that the adult must not really believe in them. As a parent, we have to talk straight with our children and give them real tips and pointers about how to succeed. Don't just slobber 'Yeah! Good job!' all over them when they haven't really earned it. When they fail, you have to teach them how to handle failure. That means teaching them how to analyze what went wrong and how to improve their performance for the next time. It also means teaching them how to get back up in the saddle to ride again.
Often as parents, we want to protect our children from feeling like failures. We think the experience of failing causes our children to lose heart and give up. The truth is that part of growing and reaching beyond our comfort zones involves failing once in awhile. If you protect your child from ever seeing themselves as less than a winner, then you rob them of the opportunity to learn tenacity and determination. You don't carry a toddler around on your hip and give them rewards for learning how to walk. You put them down on the ground and let them fall down and get up and fall down and get up and fall down. You can cheer them for their tenacity, but you have to let them figure out how to do it without your help. Successfully accomplishing their goals is what builds a 'can do' attitude.
It's not our job to make sure they always win and they always succeed. It's our job to make sure that nobody interferes with their ability to learn how to win and how to succeed. You protect the environment, set the atmosphere for self-growth, self-determination, self-discovery of one's own natural talents and one's natural limitations. You coach them, but you don't lie to them about their successes. You cheer them on but you don't tell them that they are a winner if their work was sloppy or less than their best. When a child really works hard and gives it their all, then yes they have a winner's drive and a winner's attitude, but don't reward them as if they've crossed the finish line. Real self-esteem is earned, it's not given to someone as a consolation prize.
Copyright 2006, Skye Thomas, Tomorrow's Edge
About The Author
Skye Thomas is the CEO of Tomorrow's Edge, an Internet leader in inspiring leaps of faith. Her books, articles, and astrological forecasts have inspired people of all ages and faiths to recommit themselves to the pursuit of happiness.