According to Stanley Coopersmith (1967), a pioneer researcher in this area, self-esteem has at least four dimensions: significance, competence, power, and virtue. Other researchers use similar ideas but employ different words. Susan Harter (1983), for example, uses the words acceptance, power and control, moral virtue, and competence. Your self-esteem depends on what you value, which is likely to be influenced by what your family and culture values for you (which may depend on gender) and where you perceive that you fall in each category. Let’s take a look at each of these dimensions in turn.


Significance has to do with a feeling of being loved and cared about, the feeling that you matter to someone. You can’t instill this feeling in a child. You can try to influence it with words and deeds, with nurturing and protection, with caring, and with meeting needs, but you can’t ensure that the messages you send are the ones the child will receive. A feeling of significance, the feeling that you are important because you are cared about, is a choice the individual makes.

It is vital to understand that children are active participants in the development of their sense of self. No matter what hand fate deals, it’s not the events themselves that determine self-esteem—it’s how the child reacts to those events. Obviously some children are born into more fortunate circumstances than others, yet there are children who have everything going for them who don’t feel good about themselves. Other children are just the opposite. They manage to emerge from a series of traumas with self-esteem intact and, indeed, growing. These children seem to be able to use adverse circumstances to their own advantage. They grow and learn from their experiences and come out stronger than ever. They seem to take the negative and twist it around to have a positive effect.


You can influence competence in a child by helping him become increasingly skilled in a number of areas. But whether the child feels competent depends on whether he compares himself with someone who is more competent than he is. It’s a decision the child makes, not one that you make, though you can influence his decision by making comparisons yourself or demanding perfection. If competence is particularly important to him, he may experience lower self-esteem, even though he is highly competent, simply because he doesn’t see himself as competent enough. There’s a discrepancy between where he thinks he should be (or wants to be) and where he is. He doesn’t meet his own standards (which may or may not have come from his family or his culture).


Let’s look at power, the third dimension of self-esteem. Feeling that you have some control over being who you are, making things happen in the world, having an effect on the people and events in your life, and living your life satisfactorily give a sense of power. If power is of major importance to you, having a feeling of it can raise your self-esteem. Notice that power is not defined here as having control over other people—it’s not a matter of overpowering, but power in the pure sense of the word: personal power, which reflects the root meaning of the word—“to be able.” Power has to do with effectiveness.


Virtue is the fourth dimension of self-esteem. Being good is important to some people. Their self-esteem relates to how much of a gap there is between how good they perceive themselves to be and how good they want or need to be. Virtue is not a supreme value to everyone.