Raise confident kids
A guide to boosting self-esteem from infancy to early adulthood

By Radha Marcum

When it comes to raising confident, happy children, self-esteem is more than just a warm, fuzzy term. Studies show that children with high self-esteem are more successful academically, get along better with others, are less susceptible to peer pressure, and cope more effectively with life’s ups and downs (Journal of School Health, 2002, vol. 72, no. 7).

No shortcuts exist for establishing healthy self-esteem. Self-esteem is built brick by brick—experience by experience. Like a house, self-esteem needs a proper foundation and ongoing care throughout a child’s life, says Sally Goldberg, PhD, author of Constructive Parenting (Pearson Allyn & Bacon, 2001). Here, child development experts Goldberg, Susan Isaacs Kohl, and Buffie Smith, PhD, offer advice on fostering resiliency and self-esteem in your child.

Infancy to age 5
Healthy self-esteem starts at birth, in infant-parent bonding. “The quality of the primary caregivers’ attention—how well they respond to the child’s needs—is what builds a secure attachment,” says Kohl, author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari Press, 2004). That connection, established early on through simple actions such as holding and feeding, is further strengthened in the following ways, giving children a basic trust in the world that helps them feel confident throughout their lives.

Spend quality time with your child. Starting at an early age, parents foster self-esteem in their child by spending regular time together doing enjoyable things, say all three experts. “This doesn’t just mean going to the grocery store or giving a bath,” emphasizes Kohl, “but doing something that the child sees as fun, such as playing with toys, or playing a board game or a sport, depending on the child’s age.” This is especially important when a new sibling comes into the picture, says Goldberg, professor of early childhood education at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Keep a consistent activity time with the older child to let him know that he is still just as important to you.

Bonding early
Did you start to help build healthy self-esteem in your child at birth? Tell us the steps you took that made a difference. E-mail your success story to deliciousliving@newhope.com. Mirror your child. Because kids get to know themselves through the eyes of others, parents are critical mirrors for children, says Smith, school psychologist at the Bank Street School for Children in New York City. Mirroring—that is, reflecting a child’s activities with “positive interest rather than evaluation,” says Kohl—sounds simple: When the baby smiles, you smile; if the 5-year-old draws a multicolored picture of her sister, you say, “You’ve drawn a picture of your sister using all the colors of the rainbow.” The important message for the child is, “‘I just have to be me, and I’m loved,’” says Goldberg. “Saying things like ‘you’re great’ or ‘that’s nice’ is positive but not as helpful to the child’s self-esteem as more reflective words,” explains Kohl. These evaluative statements may make children feel good but are too general to have lasting impact. A parent’s words should be reflective (“You’ve built a tower using all of your square blocks!”) to create awareness and confidence in the child.

Ages 6 to 12
In this age range, children’s natural inclinations are really beginning to blossom. Build on the foundation years by continuing to spend time doing special activities and giving specific, positive feedback, says Smith. What more can you do at this stage?

Build success. As children reach school age, “feelings of accomplishment, of being successful at a task, enhance their self-esteem,” says Kohl. Lend your children a hand to complete tasks, such as building a birdhouse, she suggests, or learn a new skill for school. “One mother I know helped her daughter create a video for a school book report,” says Kohl. “It meant so much to the daughter.”

Foster interests. It’s important, Smith underscores, that the child has opportunities to explore many diverse areas of potential strength, and that adults honor the child’s interests rather than their own, or those they believe the child should have. “Be open to who the child is,” she says. “Having the opportunity to discover you’re really good at something—and having the resources to develop that talent—is the core of self-esteem.” In whatever interests your child chooses, be careful not to overemphasize competition or perfection, Goldberg cautions. “The satisfaction should come from learning and growing in whatever you do,” she says, “and not whether you win or lose.” Instead of demanding perfection or a certain outcome, emphasize the joy of working toward a goal, and foster satisfaction in children for having done their best.

Set appropriate boundaries. All three experts agree that wholesome discipline reinforces a child’s self-esteem and doesn’t knock it down. “When [parents] have difficulty with a child—say the child is in the habit of screaming to get what she wants—you don’t turn around the behavior by lecturing, berating, or punishing her,” says Kohl. Kids need direction and correction, but the feedback should be specific. When children misbehave, says Goldberg, “remove them from the situation, ask them to explain why it happened, and help them develop and implement a plan to fix it.” Always separate the behavior from the child, she emphasizes. Express that you don’t like the behavior but that you still love the child. And remember to vigilantly recognize positive behavior. Kohl recommends words such as these: “I notice you’re not bothering your brother right now. I really appreciate that.”

Help children see their vital role in life. In the past, children were expected to contribute to the family from the get-go, says Goldberg. Thus, children naturally developed a sense of self-worth. Today, parents can “encourage children to help out in whatever capacity they can and to understand the vital role they do play,” Goldberg suggests. For example, a young child might help set the table for dinner, or an older child might read a book to younger siblings or cook a meal once a week. Down the road, you can encourage the child to volunteer for an organization, so he can see his place in the larger community.

Teen years
For budding adults, it may feel like their entire world shifts during their teen years, but many of the same self-esteem tenets for earlier years still apply. Teens do look to peers and outside authorities for acceptance, but positive relationships with parents count as much as ever.

Acknowledge feelings. Because emotions can be especially intense and confusing during the teen years, be proactive in recognizing a child’s feelings—whether positive or negative—without judgment. “A lot of parents think that by noticing their child’s feelings, the feelings will become amplified,” says Kohl, “but the child needs the parent to notice. Sometimes they’re not aware of [the feelings] otherwise.”

Be aware that what you think of your child, your child will think of herself. Don’t try to fix feelings, advises Kohl. Saying things like, “You look a little down. Are you worried about something?” is helpful. Saying “You don’t need to feel sad” is less useful. The latter statement may send a message to the child that her feelings are invalid, confusing her and possibly exacerbating the situation. Instead, offer encouraging words: “I know how hard it is to feel angry, but you’re dealing really well with the situation.” Whatever the circumstances, “listen about 70 percent, and talk about 30 percent,” suggests Goldberg.

Teach practical life skills. Although learning basic life skills, such as eating healthy meals and exercising, ideally starts well before adolescence, these skills become increasingly important for a teen’s self-esteem. “Teens feel better about themselves when they know how to take care of themselves,” says Goldberg. “It gives them confidence that they will be able to leave the nest [as an adult].”

For every age
“Children pick up on their parents’ thoughts and feelings,” says Kohl, “and in a problem-oriented society such as ours, it’s easy for parents to think there’s something wrong with their child when the child’s just progressing normally.” Be aware that what you think of your child, your child will think of herself. “Trust in their natural development, because who else in life will do that for them?” asks Kohl. “They’re going to get plenty of criticism and adversity in life. That’s why your confidence in them is so important.”

Colorado-based poet and freelance writer Radha Marcum particularly enjoyed gleaning tips from these experts as she anticipated the birth of her first child.