Today, as I taught my undergraduate class, we were discussing the topic of self-esteem as well as self-concept. Self-concept is how we perceive ourselves; self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves. Most of us are very familiar with the concept of self-esteem and have heard it since childhood. Ironically,most of us find it difficult to separate these ideas, and children find it impossible. To try to separate our thoughts from our feelings about ourselves is a complicated matter. The two intertwine deeply. How we think about ourselves strongly impacts how we feel about ourselves. For example, I perceive myself as an effective teacher; I also feel good about my teaching. Because I perceive myself as an effective teacher,I'm more likely to engage in activities that will ensure I really AM an effective teacher, such as professional reading,writing, and other studies.
Children are much the same. Tasha believes that she's a fast runner. She feels her feet go fast beneath her, feels the wind in her hair, and watches the scenery go by quickly. Because of her perception, Tasha thinks she's a good runner, and therefore likes to run. Running is fun for her and she runs every day, often calling out to other children, "See how fast I run!"
Often,our self-concept and self-esteem is challenged by experiences or other people. When I was in second grade, I won the spelling bee and had great confidence in my spelling ability. This was reinforced over years of excellent spelling grades. However,when I decided to pursue a graduate degree in teaching,I had to take the GRE (graduate record examination). I remember reading the vocabulary lists with horror. I didn't even know how to pronounce these words,much less know how to spell them. Imagine my surprise when one of my friends who was several years behind me in school read through the lists with ease, explaining the definition of each one. How did she build such an impressive vocabulary? Reading, of course. But what might surprise you is what she read--historical romance novels. She apparently had a habit of keeping a dictionary next to her and looking up any word she read that she didn't understand (an excellent strategy, by the way). I'm sure that as much as my self esteem suffered a much needed but mild adjustment that day, hers did too. She was a heckuva lot smart than she gave herself credit for, at least in my eyes.
Many people try to build a child's self-esteem using empty praise (Oh, good job! Way to go! You rock!) or by praising actions that deserve no praise (Johnny pulled his pants up all by himself! What a smart kindergartner! Taylor kept all his milk in his carton while he drank it! What a good first grader!). Let's be real here--we all know that without fancy buttons or clips, most three year olds can pull up their pants and drink from a straw in a milk carton. Giving kids praise over things they've already easily accomplished doesn't boost self-esteem; in fact, it can actually damage it by making the child realize the adult isn't really paying attention to what s/he can do. Of course, there are obvious ways to lower a child's self-esteem. Name-calling, disparaging remarks, undue criticism, even sharp looks can, when repeated,have a negative effect on a person's self esteem--child or adult.
For me, raising one child who has difficulty managing his emotions, my self esteem takes regular hits. Kids like mine are excellent at figuring out where your most sensitive spots are, and he knows being a good mother is critical to me,so that's where he strikes. We've all had bosses, spouses, friends, enemies, and yes,even children, who have attacked who we are in painful ways that stick with us. But ask yourself this: Objectively, is what that person says really accurate about you? If it is, then congratulate yourself; you're a full fledged person who makes mistakes from time to time. Look at what is said to you and think about how those actions or responses are serving you,and if you want to change them. I'm an extremely sarcastic person, which doesn't bode well with mothering two young children. In fact, it can be downright harmful. However, if the person who has criticized you doesn't seem to have an accurate point, let it go. Everybody's allowed an opinion. That doesn't mean that they're right.
Teaching children to let go of the ugly--the criticisms, the bullying, the meanness--is important but so difficult. The best way to protect a child from these things is a strong, healthy, genuine sense of self concept and self esteem. Praise your child for real accomplishments. Note the good things they do. You're building a healthy wall around your child that will work to keep the negatives out.