Supporting the Development of Self-Esteem
Spend a week watching children, and try to identify the observations that make you smile and think, "Everything is all right with that child." There will probably be observations in which the child is smiling and exuding a sense of mastery. Think of the child who has just learned to walk. All he wants to do is walk. His arms are outstretched, he is leaning over his feet a bit, and his feet move forward trying to keep up with his enthusiasm over his newfound power. Although he does not have the words to express what he is experiencing, he seems to be saying, "Look what I can do! Here I come world!" His enthusiasm is contagious and one cannot help but smile and take delight in this newly developed skill. Listen to toddlers who exclaim, "Me do!" or "Do again!" Watch toddlers insist on doing things for themselves. Watch them smile and jump up and down and even flap their hands when they complete a challenging task. Listen to preschoolers who say, "I can do it by myself." or "Watch and see how high I can pump on the swing." or "I think I can do the hard one." One can conclude from watching these children that they feel very good about themselves, and that they are on their way to building a powerful sense of self-esteem. Often, parents' major wish for their children is that they do develop a positive sense of themselves. A statement often echoed by parents is, "I just really want her to feel good about herself." How is it that some children develop a positive sense of themselves and others do not? How do you talk to young children so you have a sense of what they are feeling about themselves? How do you help young children to be realistic in their expectations for themselves as they experience their wishes and disappointments?
Self-Esteem and Young Children
Parents are absolutely right in knowing that a child's self-esteem is a very important factor in healthy development. Studies (Harter, 1988, 1999) of self-esteem have found that high self-esteem in childhood is connected to satisfaction and happiness in adulthood. Conversely, low self-esteem in childhood is connected to depression, anxiety, and maladjustment in school and later relationships. The challenge for adults who interact with young children is to know how to support the development of a positive sense of self-esteem. In order to know how to do this most effectively, it is important to understand some developmental principles and to understand the results of research that have described the parental characteristics that lead to high self-esteem in middle childhood.
The Drive toward Progressive Development. All children are motivated to move forward in their development. Some do so at different rates, but it is easy to observe this drive whether one watches a 12-month-old learning to walk or children in kindergarten trying on the roles of adults in their play. Theorists differ when they describe the source of this motivation. Robert White (1960) aptly described it as "effectance, the motivation to explore, manipulate, and master the world." After repeated experiences with such exploration, manipulation, and mastery, children develop feelings of competence. It is these feelings of mastery or competence that build a positive sense of self-esteem. When the drive toward progressive development is not present in a child, it is easy to see his lack of investment in developing competence and one questions what has gone wrong in the child's development to cause this arrest.
Supporting Children's Struggles with Dependence and Independence. Young children's growing autonomy and independence can only develop and thrive if they have developed trusting relationships with significant caregivers. It is through these relationships that they develop a sense of trust in themselves and others and are given the ability to become more separate and independent. Even though they are interested in being independent, they still need to know that they can come back to that secure base and refuel and regress if necessary. Sometimes, this ambivalent behavior is confusing for adults who interact with children. Children engaged in the struggle over dependence and independence need to know that this is a normal struggle. They need to feel accepted by the adults. The kind of comment that does not communicate this acceptance is something such as, "Oh, you went off and left mommy, and now you want to come back and be friendly." or "Oh, you don't have to act like a baby." A child is more likely to feel accepted and able to talk about the conflict over dependence and independence if the adult makes comments such as, "Sometimes it is hard to know if you want to be a big boy or a baby. Sometimes it is just too hard to be a big boy all of the time." It is this kind of acceptance by the parent or other adults that has been found to be a characteristic that supports the development of self-esteem in children (Coopersmith, 1967).
There are many times when the acceptance of the child is easy. For instance, when they are happy, involved, and compliant, this task is very easy. It is when they are irritable, clingy, stubborn, and provocative that it becomes more difficult to be accepting. It is important to note that being accepting does not necessarily mean that the adult allows the child to engage in the latter behavior to an extreme. Rather, the accepting adult is able to acknowledge and accept the affect behind the difficult behavior and, at the same time, communicate that she or he does not condone difficult behavior such as kicking, hitting, screaming, etc. The unaccepting adult shames the child for his or her behavior. For example, "Stop clinging. You are a big girl and you do not need to do that, and you are going to make me fall." The accepting adult is able to communicate expectations without shaming the child. For example, "I know you are feeling nervous about coming to a new place. But I am going to stay with you, and I can help you better if you can hold my hand and talk with me about what is worrying you." Although the child may not be able to say anything at the moment, he or she has at least been understood and given some strategies to use to cope with a difficult situation. The child has also learned that it is possible to talk about difficult situations.
The Importance of Clear Limit Setting. Another factor found to support the development of self-esteem in children is the ability of adults to set clear limits for children (Coopersmith, 1967). Setting limits for children becomes a challenge during the second year. It is during this year that children have growing sense of autonomy and independence. They usually wish for omnipotence both in themselves and the adults in their lives. They often try to obtain this omnipotence by wanting to be the boss of everyone and everything. You can hear the words as early as 15 months, which emphatically state "Mine." "Me do." "No." Some older and somewhat more articulate 2-year-olds might express the wish for omnipotence quite clearly. "Because I want everyone to do what I want them to do." At 18 months, children recognize their reflections in the mirror, and between 18–24 months they begin to refer to themselves with pride. As they recognize themselves as independent, they begin to make plans on their own and begin to see that sometimes their plans and activities are not what the adults want them to do. As they test the limits, they develop a growing sense of what is right and what is wrong as appropriate limits are set for them. Even though they test the limits constantly, they long to be accepted and loved in the eyes of the important adults in their lives. The limits need to be set in such a way so that the children gradually realize they cannot be omnipotent, nor for that matter can the adults. Whenever limits are set, children are helped if they are not shamed for testing the limits, and if adults can help the children to find an alternative activity that might help them feel competent. For example, children who keep trying to play with the pots on the stove may be able to satisfy the urge to be like mommy or daddy when they cook by having their own drawer of pots and cooking utensils that they can play with while their parents are cooking. Children who are given the cooking utensils to play with have at least experienced that their urge to be like mom and dad is a good one and one that is valued by the people that they love. This kind of confirmation of one's wishes clearly leads to the building of self-esteem.
Parents' Respect for Individuality. A third factor (Coopersmith, 1967), which has been shown to be linked to the development of self-esteem in children, is the parents' respect for children's individuality. Children who feel that they can be themselves and have their own interests, even if they are different from their parents, are usually able to develop a positive sense of self.
Preschool Children's Wishes to Be Grown-Ups. When children exit toddlerhood and enter the world of preschoolers, they usually have reached some resolution about their wishes to be omnipotent. Those who have done so successfully feel positive about their growing independence as well as their growing competencies. They begin to feel very grown up. They wish to be like grown-ups. Remember the 3-year-old boy who announced proudly to his mother, "When I am four and I am a man, I will get a car." They focus quite a bit of their play on trying on the roles of adults. Thus, you see preschool classrooms in which family scenarios are played out. Usually the biggest struggle children have in this play is deciding who will play the roles of mother and father. Most of the children are vying for this role and work very hard to resolve the conflicts connected with this dilemma. The other kind of play that is most often seen in preschool classrooms is that in which children are taking on the roles of superheroes. They are constantly battling large and dangerous foes and ending the battles in victory. They do not have much time to enjoy the victory because battles begin anew. This play may seem very limiting and repetitive, but it often has an important purpose. Because preschool children wish to be like the grown-ups in their world, they are constantly disappointed by the fact that they are smaller, less powerful, and less competent than the adults. The more they experience these disappointments, the more tenacious they may become in their interactions with adults and in their insistence in playing these games of superheroes in which they are the grown-ups in control. Their wish to be bigger and stronger is often so powerful that adults interacting with these children feel they have to limit the power the children seem to have. They may even feel compelled to struggle with the children over who really is bigger, stronger, and in control. The delicate dance that adults have to perform is to be able to set limits for children when appropriate while helping them face their disappointments without jeopardizing their self-esteem.
Just as limit setting and respect of children's individual styles is important to the building of self-esteem in toddlers, it is just as important in interactions with preschool children. Three-, four-, and five-year-olds have better developed language skills than toddlers. They can use their language to express their feelings and describe their experience of themselves. They can use the models adults give them to make some sense of their confused and conflicted feelings when they experience disappointments and conflict. Adults often mistakenly think that young children should not experience conflict or disappointment, and they offer children only praise and constantly try to bend over backwards so that children will develop a positive sense of themselves. Actually, this kind of approach to supporting a child's self-esteem usually leads to children who are unhappy and unable to tolerate conflict or disappointment. They do not feel comfortable being in charge of everything and push harder for limits, structure, and a more realistic assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. Self-esteem does not develop in children who are duped into thinking that they and their world are perfect, because no one is perfect. Children who do not experience conflict or disappointment are not able to develop strategies to cope with failures or disappointments and may often be devastated when they have such an experience. The result of this can lead to children feeling depressed and not positive about themselves at all.
Children's Reactions to Limit Setting and Adult Expectations. It is clear that children watch adults very carefully. Children are exquisitely aware of adults' reactions to them. It is the adults in children's lives who provide them with the standards against which children measure themselves. If adults expect children to be perfect, then children will feel that they can never measure up to these impossible expectations. If adults cannot set limits for children, children will not develop their own set of inner controls and will not feel good about themselves as they continue to test limits, looking for someone to support them in developing self-control. There are many ways in which adults can talk with children about their wishes and disappointments, as well as their developing sense of themselves. When they do this, it is important to talk with children in such a way that they know that the adults are interested in their ideas, reactions, and feelings.
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