I know most parents want to go here first for the practical ways to build their child’s self-esteem. In part 3 we will kind of go backwards and discuss what self-esteem is and why it’s important. For now, here’s the how. But first, a most important approach in parenting:
Focus on only one or two things per year to change and improve in your parenting.
This way you won’t get overwhelmed by all the needs. Think of it this way, by the time they graduate from high school you will have succeeded in at least 18 issues in their lives. That is significant by any measure. I think these are some of the most critical factors:
- Time spent together, one on one.
- Influence, accepting, and being impacted by your child’s influence.
- Being transformed by your child and their unique being and contributions.
- Words and affection.
- The marital relationship.
- Their relationship with God.
Time spent together, one on one
This has to be weekly. At least 20-30 minutes. If you do that you are way ahead of the curve for most parents. To a parent (that means all of us) when I ask how much individual time each gets with their child weekly (not including homework, driving to practices/games, activities, etc.) it is almost always zero. We parents are just busy caring for everyone as well as our jobs and home and stuff. And we are literally with our kids a lot so it doesn’t seem like anything is missing.
Consider this: Your child’s esteem needs to also come from another self.
The most important other self is you as the parent or primary caregiver. It’s in the one-on-one time without distractions, other demands from children, and without devices that kids feel important. This time has to be sacred – a place of rest where kids can feel like they can go off duty and be safe with what they say and sense they are loved by the way the parent responds.
Here’s what is damaging. Having one-on-one time and using it to teach, correct, reprimand, scold, punish, discipline. Kids will remember that and dread another talk. Another area is trust. Kids have to know that what they share is held in confidence. Moms have the hardest time with this one because they tend to share these sacred things with other moms who then share them with other moms and their daughters. Or they share them with other siblings of the child. Breaking confidence is nothing short of exploiting children.
My kids know that when they tell me something it remains confidential. “Confidential” doesn’t mean I tell you not to tell anyone and then I tell you. It means you’ll never know because only my child and I know. And when my child feels I treat them this way they feel important. Because I hold their personal feelings and content and information sacred.
Plenty of kids love the one-on-one time to play, talk or do something together. Whatever that is it needs to be just the two of you. If you have several children this will be a bit challenging because other siblings will nose their way in, but that only provides a time to correct them to let them know you are spending quality time with their brother or sister and they will have their own time too. It shows them their sibling is just as valuable as they are and has feelings and needs too.
Dads – be aware that you are spending time doing what your child wants to do – not your own personal hobby or sport you want them to adopt. Don’t kid yourself that “golf is good for him and we’re spending some good one-on-one time” when he actually hates golf and would rather be playing sword fight, looking at bugs under a microscope, fixing something, or anything else you’re not good at or don’t like. But he’s playing golf (or whatever else) because that’s the only way you’ll spend time with him.
Influence: accepting and being impacted by your child’s influence
Drs. John and Julie Gottman have researched and spoken on the importance of influence in the marital relationship. Influence doesn’t start to have importance in marriage though, it starts at birth. Newborns want to be assured that when they try and influence their parent to come care for them by crying that this valid need will be met. Children will express wishes and wants both in the parent-child relationship and family that are important to notice, hear and respond to. Kids laugh with glee when dad wrestles and gently rough-houses with them and chases them – they want more of this from us. This is God’s calling to loosen up, let go of what happened at work now, and get down on the floor with them and make them happy.
Or, our kids shrink back, flinch, become frightened or mad when we yell at them, threaten them, or hurt them. That’s God’s calling to grind these ugly responses off from our character and take a deeper look at why we act that way.
Or, our kids ask nothing of us, but if we look closer for just one day, we see them trying to live life alone. That’s God’s calling to take the initiative and sit with them while they are watching one of their programs, offer to make their favorite meal, or be intentional about doing something together.
Other times it is fairness in the sibling relationships. This is a big one for kids and hard for parents to work out because every child feels this one differently. But I have to ask myself as I’m being drawn in by my kids’ dilemmas and conflicts, “Am I showing any favoritism? Is someone always feeling like the black sheep? Am I modeling to them fairness, kindness, grace and empathy?”
When kids have ideas for the family or the parent-child relationship it is important to follow up on and support those initiatives. And when kids are included in the planning process of working out their idea, they will grow to become better planners themselves compared to peers. This could be family movie night ideas, desire for family dessert out, game night, camp out, movie and popcorn, vacation, or even skipping a day from school and doing something fun.
Being transformed by your child and their unique being and contributions
Change. That’s it in a nutshell.
When you sign up for a relationship with another human being you sign up for change.
That’s true in friendships, work, marriage, having children, or combining blended families. Each new person presents an opportunity for new changes in your character, awareness, behaviors, and perspectives among many things. I love the differences of all my girls and appreciate how these have broadened my own life.
When you have relationships with others and stay your same old self you really need to consider the impact of that on them. Deep down this means they don’t matter to you. They don’t matter for you to look at some of the not-so-noble, not-so-pretty mannerisms, moods, and monotony we sometimes express in deeply rutted grooves we blame on our personality or “that’s just who I am-isms.” No, it’s just that you’re more important to yourself than your child, and you don’t want to face what needs to be changed in your own life and where it may have come from.
Don’t be in such a hurry. Re-read that paragraph.
Being transformed by your child can also free parents from worry, a huge vulnerability for most of us. Kids live so moment-to-moment, and when we as parents enter into those times with them, we can truly experience some of what Jesus said that we find our lives in losing them.
Here is the kicker. When they see tangibly that dad or mom has changed as a result of just being with them (the child), they feel they matter. That is huge for them. “Wow!” they think and feel. To an elementary level, this shows up when a child tries to teach or inform their parent of something they might not know. They feel great when they do this. But parents will see an increase in their child’s self-esteem when kids feel that they matter when mom and dad make necessary changes in themselves as a result of them and their relationship.
I wish I could put all that on a brand and sear it into your chest right now. I so want you to understand what I’m saying in these thoughts. Listen. If you don’t understand this concept you really have some work to do. Techniques and skills are not going to help.
Words and affection
“A soothing tongue is a tree of life,
But perversion in it crushes the spirit.”
Dads can have a challenge by making conflicts and problems into life-altering, character-forming principles that although may be true are misapplied when you’re just really trying to get your child to not interrupt others, make their bed, or not spend all their money. Kids end up feeling crushed. A practical way to approach this might be “batching” your time with kids. Right now, we’re on spring break vacation and it’s about 4pm. We’re winding down beach time about to go back to the condo and get ready to go to one of our favorite places for dinner. Think $$$$!!!!!GIFT SHOP EXTRAVAGANZA!!!!$$$$ and I know you are with me. Time in the gift shop and how you respond is one batch. Waiting for the table another batch. At the table and (hopefully not just eating bread) another batch. How you handle each one builds or prepares a trap for the next one.
There’s a reason most children go to their moms for comfort and nurture… they’re more comforting and nurturing verbally and physically. One thing most moms can improve on is validating their children’s feelings. Most women believe they are doing this but they’re really just answering questions or helping solve their kids’ problems. “We can’t get a table yet honey, we have to wait in line.” But validating would be more like, “I know you must be starving, you played hard at the beach all day, it’s hard to wait.” (And looking them straight in the eye, connecting with them).
Validating feelings doesn’t mean making every interaction a heavy emotional psychobabble thing all the time. Pragmatically, this would just be a few quality times a day. We’re on vacation right now, and we’re with our kids a lot so there is a lot of opportunity for validating.
Another important skill in validating is body posture. Notice if you’re turning toward them, getting on eye level (not bending over but bending down), and looking them in the eye.
Facial expression is huge. God gave us these amazing things called mirror neurons that line the muscles in our face. They act alone without us knowing it and pick up the mirror neurons in the other face. As we interact, we are unwittingly dancing back and forth in either love, agreement, laughter, joy, anger, rebuke, or hostility. If you aren’t sure what to say, consider how your face feels at that very moment because that will be heard first before your words. Once your inner spirit is in the right place your emotions and words will be more congruent with what you think is good and will be better for your child and you.
Example. My mom told me from my youngest years that I am “too serious.” Because I am a deep thinker I sometimes come off as serious when really I’m just thinking. But I’ve noticed my kids telling me I look mad when that emotion for me is not even present. But it shows up in my face so that’s the read from others. Sometimes, Mom and Dad, you have to push out the positive, smiling, affirmative look on your face with kids to get the positive connection going and the rest will follow.
Words. When kids hear us speak to them in soothing, life-giving ways and our words are congruent with our emotions and feelings about them they will feel important, valued, respected, seen, heard and treasured.
You know, maybe your work paradigm needs to completely shift. Think of your day right now. At the end of today, what did you really accomplish? Now that your kids are asleep, think of what you said to them. What did you accomplish? If you feel good about getting (forcing?) them to clean up their room, you are way off the mark.
What are they going to bed with? Your life-giving words? Or a crushed spirit? Drop your dad-failure and mommy-guilt and address the simple issue: Did you use good words with your kid tonight? Don’t make it complicated.
You know something? Some of you readers are really smart. And articulate. Try this. This should make you laugh: reflect on an issue you want to address with your child and how you would talk to them and actually record yourself on your phone and listen to it … and how long you talk! OMG. Your kid is what? 5? That means your ONE sentence should be about 5 words long for the cognitive part of their brain to receive it.
Affection. Years ago, we went on a trip to another city and one of my daughters was completely emotionally dysregulated (melting down) at bedtime. Everyone else was so tired they fell asleep in the travel-trauma, and she and I were awake together, alone in her fear and turmoil. didn’t know what to do. Or say. She was about 3 at the time. I found a secret spot on her head and gently caressed it. Somehow, magically. She drifted off to sleep with the eyes closing, then slits, then closed. And she was done. Asleep. Though 7-8 years later, this same spot is secret to her and I. When she is troubled, I can touch her there and soothe her and she falls asleep.
I touch, caress, hug, squeeze, grab, poke, my kids a lot. Appropriately. Never anywhere in the genitals, rear or chest. It’s always “I love you.” But having volunteered as a child therapist with child victims of sexual abuse for the Children’s Advocacy Center of Denton County and currently working with child, teen and adult victims of sexual abuse, I know that most perpetrators use “I love you” as they are really grooming and abusing children, teens and even adults There’s a huge difference. One is a love congruent with truth and what is good. The other is abusive, self-serving, charming and full of evil.
It really doesn’t matter how much you say until you understand what you say. And it really doesn’t matter what you say until you understand how you say it.
The marital relationship
By the way, it doesn’t work to value one relationship in the family above the others or think one relationship can be diminished without being a detriment to the rest. Having worked with a number of children where there is marital conflict, affairs, separation and divorce, I have seen that somehow when the dignity of one spouse is diminished by the other it affects the self-esteem of the children. This doesn’t matter if it is intentional and direct or unintentional and indirect.
When one spouse thinks about and treats the other spouse as less-than, the children take on either the same arrogance against that parent or they get chipped away at their own sense of value seeing their parent be devalued. A wiser person than me has said, “The most important thing you can do for your children is to love their mom/dad.”
This also communicates the important values and meaning of being masculine or feminine and the particular needs and nuances of both. Respect and appreciation is a big one for men. Dignity and care for women. When children see their parents treated without dignity or respect by the other parent it shows they don’t matter to each other. So, children can begin to feel they don’t matter either and growing up to be an adult is not such a big deal.
Simply put, adult spouse needs should always be met first in a God-relationship and then second exclusively in the marital relationship. When parents go to children to get needs met for attention, affection, love, and appreciation, it puts that child in between the parents and in an adult role they were not created for. It’s called using kids.
Kids need to know they are loved. But they get a certain kind of security when the parent loves God first, their spouse second, and children third. When God created, He first made a secure nest in making the world, then putting the garden in that nest of the world, then putting the man in that nest of the garden, then woman in that nest of the man, then both of them in the nest of marriage, and finally children in the nest of marriage.
I want to return to negative thoughts about the other marital partner. This is actually called negative attribution. It attributes negativity to the other person. When the other spouse is viewed critically like this, then likely they will not be thanked, given courtesy, appreciated, noticed, helped, encouraged, touched, loved, etc. That loss becomes a vacuum in the family. But how do you replace negativity in the marriage? By talking about the issues with dignity and respect.
Negativity only breeds other bad behaviors and attitudes. When we feel positive about our spouse and act positively towards them we are more happy and contented, more at rest and have a sense of feeling safe around them. It’s easier to play, relax, joke, work, and create when this is the atmosphere.
This brings us to the final and most important component in your child’s self-esteem. Their relationship with Christ.
Their relationship with God
When you or your spouse became pregnant, you should have had the brain burst that you were immediately incompetent. Kids don’t come with instructions because we would never get those right to begin with, and if we think we did then well, we are really full of ourselves.
Their need for God subsumes we are getting our needs met as a priority with Him for ourselves as well. You can’t and won’t translate something to your kids you don’t truly know and experience for yourself. What we understand of His grace towards us in place of our sin against Him is what we will know in our bones and spirit to convey to our children. This will not only soften us in our parenting but give us understanding for He is also our Father.
And we thought it was going to get easier as they got out of diapers. It is never too late to begin discipling your children. “Discipling” not “disciplining,” This means spending time with them in the normal courses of the day and evening both being a model and helping them know Christ. For some you will do this more so by guiding them to serve others, or be harmonious, or to love, or give, or help, or stand up for, or speak forth the gospel and share Christ with others.
Look at Mary and Daniel. We don’t know much about their parents, but as young teenagers when their stories are told in Scripture, you can see that their childhood was influenced positively with a secure relationship in God (whether in the old covenant or new). And this was pivotal for how they handled issues that they faced later in life both in blessing and trial.
When I focus on my child’s relationship with God, it gives me great relief because I make a lot of mistakes and love them imperfectly. I know He loves them perfectly and is always with them. Whatever area you focus on to help your child grow closer to God – remember – just focus on one or two things a year. That way you can not get distracted into a host of needs and issues and log down at least one or two wins a year.
I know I have been blunt in this post. But I know you. You are a parent. You can handle it. And you will do just fine with your children.