The Power of Words on Kids' Self-Esteem
Word matches tend to sling and slither their way into every home. Do words really have the power to build up or destroy, and if so, how deep and lasting is their potential effect?
Then there’s the “D-word.” Although it may seem contradictory at first glance, effective discipline and positive self-esteem are closely linked. Marshfield Clinic-Lakeland Center pediatrician Joanna K. Goral, says that, “Children with good behavior have good self-esteem. Children who feel good about themselves don’t misbehave.” Her advice? Discipline the behavior, not the child. “You can tell the child, ‘I love you very much, but I don’t like what you just did. You are not a bad boy, but what you just did is not acceptable.’ This message, given with as little emotion as possible, is the best way to correct a child’s behavior without lowering his or her self-esteem.”
The CDI stresses that it’s also important to let your children know that they create, and are responsible for, any feeling which they experience. Not an easy concept to explain, but certainly an invaluable life skill. Try and avoid blaming children for how you feel. Children also need to be aware that they are not responsible for others’ feelings.
A word of warning here. Make sure your child understands that this doesn’t give him carte blanche on what he can do or say to others. I’m pretty sure that my six-year-old’s immediate response to this piece of information would be to goad his younger brother into an emotional outburst purely to be able to inform him that he is in no way responsible. Tailor the lesson to the student! Probably from similar experiences, the CDI also suggests that parents help their children to develop “tease tolerance.” Explain to children that a certain amount of teasing can’t hurt and encourage them to ignore teasing or respond by using positive self-talk. It’s also important to let children settle their own disputes between siblings and friends when possible.
Why is Praise an Issue?
It’s a fact that praise is one of the most basic and effective ways to increase your child’s–or anyone’s for that matter–self-esteem. So why is it an issue?
University of Wisconsin Extension Family Living Agent, Joan E. LeFebvre, explains. “Obviously, recognizing our children’s positive behavior is more likely to build self-esteem than dwelling on problems. But praise is not always uplifting. Praise like ‘you’re great… wonderful… marvelous,’ can be too much for anyone to take.”
The clue lies in the difference between evaluative praise, and descriptive praise. LeFebvre teaches that children often become uncomfortable with praise that evaluates them, sometimes even deliberately misbehaving to prove you wrong. An example: you tell Jason what a great artist he is and he tells you that Jenny is better at drawing. Evaluative praise has the unintended effect of creating dependency upon the approval of others. “So, instead of evaluating what your child has done,” says LeFebvre, “It’s better to describe it. The kind of praise a child can ‘take in’ and that truly builds self-esteem comes in two parts,” she says. “First, the adult describes what the child has done. ‘I see you are all ready to go to the store,’ is an example. ‘You picked up your toys, put on your jacket, and even turned off the light in your bedroom.’ Second, the child, after hearing his accomplishment described, praises himself: ‘I know how to plan ahead and be responsible’.”
Ask yourself if your praise makes your child more dependent upon your approval, or if it helps them see their strengths so that they can make adjustments based on their own evaluation? Although descriptive praise is harder and takes longer than evaluative praise, the payoff is usually greater. But then isn’t anything in the end?
How Is Your Child’s Self-Esteem?
The Child Development Institute offers some general indicators to help you evaluate your child’s level of self-esteem.
A child with high self esteem will be able to:
- Act independently
- Assume responsibility
- Take pride in his accomplishments
- Tolerate frustration
- Attempt new tasks and challenges
- Handle positive and negative emotions
- Offer assistance to others
A child with low self-esteem will:
- Avoid trying new things
- Feel unloved and unwanted
- Blame others for his own shortcomings
- Feel, or pretend to feel, emotionally indifferent
- Be unable to tolerate a normal level of frustration
- Put down his own talents and abilities
- Be easily influenced
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