Parental Contributions to Preschoolers' Self-Esteem
When parents support the behaviors of their preschooler that reflect a sense of initiative, they also support their children's development of self-esteem. During these early years, children make judgments about themselves based on how well parents and others seem to like them (social acceptance). Their self-evaluations are linked as well to how good they are at accomplishing the tasks they attempt to master (competence). They have difficulty, however, in discriminating their competence at different activities, and when asked how well they can perform some activity they typically overestimate their ability and underestimate task difficulty. Preschoolers' overranking of their abilities reflects a high self-esteem, a quality that is highly adaptive at that age because it encourages them to persist at tasks during a period in which many new skills must be mastered (Harter, 1999). Preschoolers' tendency to evaluate themselves highly does not mean they are unaware of the judgments of others. Throughout the early years, children become increasingly conscious of what others think, and they begin to evaluate their own behaviors using those standards. Although most young children have high self-esteem, by age 4 some children give up when faced with challenges, concluding that they will not be able to accomplish the task or having been discouraged after failure. When nonpersisting preschoolers are asked why they have given up, they frequently report that their parents would be mad at them or punish them for making mistakes. Children as young as 2 or 3 years of age respond with disappointment or guilt when they fail at a task, such as not being able to tie their shoes, or when they have an accident, perhaps spilling their juice (Butler, 1998).
What This Means for Professionals
When parents understand that young children routinely overestimate their abilities and tend to feel disappointed and guilty when they fail at a task or cause an accident, they are more likely to understand their role in promoting their preschoolers' self-concept. Although preschoolers are highly interested in taking initiative in demonstrating what they can do, they need parental backup and encouragement. Parental backup consists of allowing the child to attempt a new skill while assisting the child to be successful in mastering that skill. Preschoolers need parents to provide assistance without taking over and to increasingly withdraw assistance as the preschooler becomes more adept. By and large, parents of preschoolers should back up when needed and back off when no longer needed. In addition to assisting their young children to meet their goals, it is essential that parents consistently encourage them in the process of accomplishing what they attempt to master. Parents encourage their children when they attend to children's feelings about their accomplishments and emphasize the progress children are making as they are engaged in an activity. Finally, parents promote their young children's self-esteem when they send a clear message to them that they are valued.
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