An emphasis on self-esteem turns up in much of the research in child development and especially in material written for parents. Often what is written cuts two ways; parents are supposed to make children feel good about themselves but have also been taken to task for praising children too readily, diminishing the value of the praise and failing to enable children to develop a realistic appraisal of their abilities.
A recent article referred to research supposedly showing that unconditional self-esteem is most valuable of all. This seemed to mean having a belief in one’s worth even in the face of making mistakes or falling short. The author then equated that kind of desirable unconditionality with giving trophies for participation. It is difficult to see how a trophy of that kind builds feelings of self-worth.
The idea here is that if children feel they are loved only for their achievement or for behavior that meets parental approval, they do not develop that inner feeling of self-worth. But parental approval and love are, in fact, major motivators in children giving up early pleasures for more mature behavior and for achieving success in valued activities. If unconditional love is interpreted to mean that children should be praised or rewarded no matter what they do, the result becomes a failure to set any standards. And parents have also been criticized when children behave as though anything they do is fine.
What does unconditional love really mean? Is it expressed by praising everything that children do? If children are disapproved of for certain behavior, does that mean to them that they are not loved? Parents often seek to reassure children that of course they are loved even when parents get angry or disapprove of their behavior. Are such statements meaningful or do children experience disapproval as the loss of love?
Not just children but even adults may experience the anger or disapproval of someone significant to them as a loss of love, which actually it is at that moment. When someone is angry or disapproving, he or she is not very loving. The question really is whether being the recipient of that anger or disapproval leaves one feeling worthless. Can we help children feel secure enough about their worth to withstand moments of anger or disapproval from those on whom they depend?
The answer to that obviously has to be yes – because it is not possible to raise children without at times expressing anger, or disapproval of their behavior. Most of the time children’s self-esteem is not damaged by such expression from parents. Depending on their age or developmental stage, children have characteristic ways of reacting to and dealing with those situations. When their reaction is out of proportion to the event, we try to understand why and to address the situation accordingly.
In a previous article, I wrote that parental self-esteem is the most significant ingredient in helping children’s sense of self-worth. Too often the judgments we make of our children’s behavior reflect feelings we may have about ourselves. The disappointment we may feel in their achievements may express some disappointment in ourselves. The anger we feel at times is provoked by something about our own lives rather than children’s behavior in and of itself.
When we speak of children “pushing our buttons,” we are commenting on their ability to touch some vulnerability in ourselves that produces a reaction often out of proportion to the provocation. Besides, the feedback we get from our children is not always the most reliable measure of our success as parents. Raising children means by definition that they are not completely free to do as they please or to have everything they might want. That means they in turn will have times of anger toward us or tell us what terrible parents we are. It is then we then need to believe in our own self-worth and ability as parents so that we can withstand the temporary withdrawal of our children’s love.
Another test of our own self-esteem is whether we are able to see our children as different from ourselves and value who they are despite those differences. Do we need to see our own reflection in them only when it is positive and reject anything that seems to speak to something we feel negatively about in ourselves? Can we recognize and value their strengths even when they are not those we share – or perhaps had secretly hoped for in them?
It is our self-esteem as parents that enable us to know that neither we nor our children are perfect. We will make mistakes just as our children do. If we don’t judge ourselves harshly, we won’t judge our children harshly. Authenticity means having values, knowing what they are and holding ourselves to the same standard we hold our children. It is this that children recognize and it is from this that they draw their own feelings of self-worth.