Adults use specific practices that affect a child’s self-esteem. Authoritative, supportive adults use strategies that enhance children’s self-esteem. Enhancing practices help children develop authentic—healthy, positive, and realistic—self-esteem. Nonsupportive adults use strategies that degrade or humiliate children, thus contributing to the development of negative self-esteem (Pawlak & Klein, 1997). Other adults focus on activities that ultimately foster narcissism or excessively self-centered views of the self.

Believe in and Adopt an Authoritative Caregiving Style

Authoritative caregivers are demanding in an appropriate way. They are also highly responsive to what children need. The authoritative style helps children comply with (obey) reasonable limits and assists them to be more helpful and cooperative and less aggressive.

Authoritative adults also help children develop positive self-esteem (Kernis et al., 2000; Pawlak & Klein, 1997). Parents and teachers are most likely to help children develop healthy self-esteem by combining acceptance, affection, high but reasonable expectations, and limits on children’s behavior and effort (Lamborn, Mounts, Steinberg, & Dornbusch, 1991). Children also have a better chance of developing healthy self-esteem when parents have little conflict in their marriages (Pawlak & Klein, 1997).

Plan Appropriate Activities That Are Deserving of Children’s Time

You really do not need to plan “cute activities” intended to boost self-esteem. In fact, cute activities are frequently developmentally inappropriate. Katz (1993) believes that children are most likely to develop authentic self-esteem when they participate in activities for which they can make real decisions and contributions. The project approach helps children focus on real topics, environments, events, and objects that are deserving of a young child’s time and effort. Developmentally appropriate activities help a child see herself as connected to others, as a hard worker, as kind and helpful, and as a problem solver. These are enduring traits that will help children develop a healthy sense of self and self-esteem.

Express Genuine Interest in Children and Their Activities

Engage in joint activities willingly. Adults who show an interest in children believe that a child’s activities—whether playing with measuring cups, finger painting, playing computer games, building a campsite, or playing in sand—are valid and interesting. An adult communicates belief that the child is a person worthy of the adult’s attention by demonstrating concern about a child’s welfare, activities, and friends. Children tend to be competent, both academically and interpersonally, when significant adults communicate genuine interest in them (Heyman, Dweck, & Cain, 1992).

Several decades ago, Coopersmith (1967) found that parents of children with both high and low self-esteem spent the same amount of time with their children. He explained this puzzling finding by stating that the mothers of children with high self-esteem spent time willingly with their children and seemed to enjoy the interaction. Mothers of children with low self-esteem, on the other hand, appeared to spend time with their children grudgingly.

Give Meaningful Feedback to Children

Giving feedback is one of the basic ways through which adults influence children. Information from adults about how a child has performed a task is an important source of information about the child’s competence. The Kernis research group (2000) found that children with unstable self-esteem had fathers who were critical (i.e., gave unhelpful feedback).

We can help children learn to acknowledge what they do well without bragging about what they do well—to take credit gracefully. Adults who encourage humility focus on what a child has done well, thereby helping her recognize her competence, one of the dimensions of self-esteem.

Example.  Mrs. Vargas knew that Justine recognized and could name a square and a circle. From her checklist she also realized that Justine did not know the name for a triangle. Consequently, she placed a large square, circle, and triangle on a bulletin board and had the same shapes in a box. “You know the names of some shapes, Justine. Please reach into this box, take out one shape, and put it on top of the same shape on the board.” When Justine correctly matched squares, the teacher said, “You’re right! This is called a ‘square.’” When Justine matched the triangular shapes Mrs. Vargas simply said, “You’ve matched the triangles!”

Avoid empty praise and flattery
Some people use empty praise (constantly saying “Good job!”) (Kohn, 2001) and flattery, thinking that such information will boost self-esteem. We are most likely to help children develop a healthy sense of self and self-esteem when we use what Katz (1993) calls appreciation: meaningful positive feedback directly related to a child’s effort or interest. Expressing appreciation is an appropriate practice that will help a child build a healthy view of her competence.

Example.  Mrs. Chen, the consultant, observed Mr. Lee, the third-grade teacher, use appreciation as feedback. Bennie was working on a project about mammals and had a specific question. Mr. Lee had a book at home with some information in it that Bennie needed. The teacher brought the book to school the next day so that Bennie would have a good reference. This teacher was helping Bennie develop healthy self-esteem based on increased understanding of a specific concept. It is also possible that Bennie would view himself as worthy of the teacher’s time because Mr. Lee took the trouble to search for the book.

Example.  Third grader Carl’s grandmother said to him, “You really concentrate well, Carl. You had homework to do and did it in spite of all the noise outside.”

Acknowledge Both Pleasant and Unpleasant Feelings

A child is jealous of a new baby brother. Another child feels guilty about having hit someone. Another feels great anger when an older child takes his lunch money. A primary child envies the children who belong to the country club. A preschooler is sad about his puppy who had to have surgery. Still another child is angry with a grandfather who makes fun of him. These children are all experiencing unpleasant emotions or feelings.

The real test of support for children comes when they are sick, hurt, unhappy, angry, jealous, fearful, or anxious—when they have unpleasant feelings. It is difficult at times for adults to acknowledge unpleasant feelings. Some adults tend to focus on a young child’s behavior that often results from these feelings. They become so upset themselves with the child’s behavior that they forget how to or refuse to deal with whatever brought on the guilt, anger, or sadness.

Demonstrate Respect for All Family Groups and Cultures; Avoid Sexism and Judging Physical Attributes

Convey, with words and actions, your abiding belief that all children are valuable, all children. It is important that children observe adults demonstrating authentic respect for both genders, for children with different abilities, and for various family groups and different cultures (Pierce & Wardle, 1997).

Example.  This teacher knows his class well. Several children live in single-parent families and one child lives with her grandmother. When discussing the topic of families, he showed digital photographs on a large screen of each child’s family taken at the school picnic. He acknowledged that each group was indeed a family. He said, “We all live in families. Some families have lots of people in them and some families are small.”

Example.  Moua’s mother and aunt do intricate embroidery on cloth, producing beautiful and complex geometric designs. The children, other faculty, and administrators have admired the wall hanging that they produced and that Mr. Claiborne hung in the classroom.

Teach Specific Social Skills

Some children have poor social skills; for example, they might interrupt others, hit when angry, tattle, refuse to help others, call others names, or not know how to join others in play. Children with serious deficits on social skills are likely to view themselves as incompetent with others and in many social situations. They are also likely to evaluate themselves as having little control over things. Consequently, they are likely to develop negative self-esteem.

Avoid artificially boosting self-esteem. Instead, consider teaching children real skills as a way of giving them positive social experiences with others. For example, they might need to learn how to take turns, how to ask for something, how to enter a group, or how to respond to someone’s anger.

Example.  Mr. Nellis was supervising on the playground when he observed one of the second-grade children trying to push his way into the line at the slide, only to hear other children shout, “Hey, wait your turn!” The teacher walked over and asked the child in private, “Would you like to take a turn on the slide?” When the child replied in the affirmative, the teacher then said, “I guess that you’ve noticed that others don’t like it much when somebody crashes into the line. If you want a turn just get in the back of the line and wait until it’s time for you to go up the ladder.”

To summarize, there are many appropriate practices that you can use to guide children toward a healthy and balanced sense of themselves and self-esteem. Many children, however, come from families using inappropriate and even hurtful practices. Such practices do not help children gain accurate self-knowledge or self-control. Hurtful, inappropriate practices batter and bruise children’s self-esteem by degrading and demeaning them.

Children incorporate negative adult opinions into their sense of self; you will likely see a child’s negative view of herself reflected in her behavior. Your job with these children will be to keep this in mind as you reflect a more positive view.