What Builds Real Self-Esteem in Kids?

How did we get to the place where self-esteem has become such a well-guarded idol?

It’s epidemic in Western parenting.  A child’s self-esteem is considered the fragile power source of his future success as a human being.  Parents (and some educators) have employed themselves as self-esteem’s trusted custodians, carefully guarding against disappointment and potential failure, as though they are the greatest threats to a child’s sense of worth.

Let’s have a look at what “great self-esteem” has accomplished in our kids.  According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 2800 teens get pregnant each day, resulting in nearly one million teen pregnancies nationwide per year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say nearly 3,000 people under the age of 18 become regular smokers each day. And according to Students Against Drunk Driving, 72% of high schoolers report having used alcohol – 37% say they did it by the 8th grade.

Education is bearing similar fruit. “The statistics are staggering: among 30 developed countries, theU.S.is ranked 25th in math and 21st in science. It’s estimated that by the year 2020, there will be 123 million high-paying, high-skill jobs in the United States, but only 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill these positions.”  www.waitingforsuperman.com

So either self-esteem isn’t as important as everyone thought, or the Western parenting model isn’t building real self-esteem. I’d say it’s the latter. People do need to know that they are valuable and their life is worth something, but the question is, how do we help our kids get there?

What makes a person feel worthy? I can tell you one thing that doesn’t – flattery. And isn’t that what we’re doing when we tell our children that every single thing they do is fabulous? Every picture is a masterpiece. Every note played or sung is magnificent. Every performance is stellar. Our kids are smart, and deep down, they know it isn’t true. Now, what does that do self-esteem?

Schools have jumped on the flattery band wagon too. Nearly every child gets an award, and almost every student is “honored” as Student of the Month. A few years ago, I went to my nephew’s baseball game, and I was amazed that the whole “three strikes and you’re out” rule has struck out. Now, kids get to swing as many times as it takes to hit the ball — wouldn’t want to hurt their self-esteem, you know.

Psalms 12:3 says, “The Lord shall cut off all flattering lips.”  And Proverbs20:19warns, “meddle not with him that flattereth with his lips.”

Our kid’s want to know that we value them and that they’re worth something, but that’s not the message we send when we play lineman, aggressively fighting off all threats of failure and disappointment.

We tell them we value them by spending time with them and listening to their stories and offering honest, heart-felt answers to their questions. We tell them we value them when we take an interest in discovering who God created them to be, and giving them open and honest feedback so that they can find the lane they were created to run in and then run in it with excellence.

Our daughters (Skyler and Sydney) are best friends (that worked out well, huh?), and recently they choreographed a dance together to perform at the county fair. When they had all the moves down, they performed it for us in Jody’s living room. We couldn’t help but think they were so cute, but we also knew that their dance wasn’t performance worthy.

“Did you guys have fun doing that?” we asked. “You sure looked cute! And we’re so happy that you enjoyed it. We could tell you were having a blast. But we don’t think you should perform it at the fair. You both have so many talents, and perhaps if you had lessons you’d be ready to enter a contest, but for now, you should focus on your strengths.”

If our daughters were passionate about dance (or even just strongly interested), we’d encourage it – scouting out local dance performances, signing them up for classes, and encouraging them to enter dance contests.

We call this “running in your own lane.” And when we care enough to help our kids figure what their lane is, we are sending a message that they are valuable to us.

Once they figure out what they love and what peaks their interest, they have a sense of worth because they can live with purpose. They’ll know God has a plan for them, and they’ll even have a clue about what the plan is. All of that adds up to self-worth.

In case you were concerned about our little dancing queens, they had a happy ending at the county fair.  Between the two of them, they raked in a stack of blue ribbons, won a good amount of prize money, won best of show for two items, sang beautifully before a live audience, and did a stellar demonstration on how to spin art yarn. Their recognition came from hard work and talent. They had earned it, and the reward felt good.

As for dance, they’re both currently enrolled in a ballroom dancing class. So maybe they can try next year…maybe.

We can help boost our kid’s self esteem by encouraging and equipping them to work hard and enjoy true rewards. Few things feed self-esteem like a sense of integrity, and to that end, we can coach them to define their own values and hold them accountable to live by them. As we disciple our kids and help them discover the plans God has for them, and then challenge them be the very best they can be, we can help improve their sense of worth. These are the markers of real self-esteem.

Dare I say flattery has the opposite effect? What are your thoughts…

Jenni Stahlmann

Jenni Stahlmann is the mom of seven kids (ages 1 to 20) including one on the autism spectrum. She and her husband Matthew homeschool the whole brood. Jenni has been a journalist for more than 20 years, having covered government, business and family issues for a wide range of magazines and newspapers. Currently, she and Jody co-host a weekly syndicated radio show, write a weekly newspaper column and freelance articles and speak at churches, political groups and homeschool conventions about parenting on purpose.

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Jenni Stahlmann is the mom of seven kids (ages 1 to 20) including one on the autism spectrum. She and her husband Matthew homeschool the whole brood. Jenni has been a journalist for more than 20 years, having covered government, business and family issues for a wide range of magazines and newspapers. Currently, she and Jody co-host a weekly syndicated radio show, write a weekly newspaper column and freelance articles and speak at churches, political groups and homeschool conventions about parenting on purpose.

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