As parents, we want to raise our children for the world, yet protect them from its dangers. We want our kids to ride their bikes without training wheels, as long as they don’t get scraped up. We want to let them choose their friends, as long as we feel comfortable with them.
These protective instincts can get in the way of something we really want to do: build up our children’s self-esteem so that they have the courage to try new things and the confidence to make good decisions. At least that’s what Patti Cancellier says. She’s the education director at The Parent Encouragement Program (PEP), a nonprofit in the Washington, D.C. area that offers parenting classes to families of all incomes.
It’s never too early — or late — to help your child develop a healthy sense of themselves. Here are some tricks to try at any stage of your child’s life.
Use the “Language of Encouragement”
I cringe every time I remember telling my child, “Great job!” because I knew it would make them smile with pride. Using specific, encouraging language to describe their actions is far better in the long run, Cancellier said.
It might be as simple as telling your 4-month-old baby, “Look at you! I see you reaching and working to roll over.”
A slightly older infant might be frustrated that they can’t grab a ball just out of reach. Don’t give it to them. Instead, move it a little closer and encourage your child to try again.
“The child probably doesn’t understand, but gets a sense from your tone of voice and attention that it’s a good thing,” she said.
The same principle works on older children too. Sure, it’s easier and faster to help your child get dressed for school. But encouraging them to do it themselves serves both of you better in the long run.
Make Housework Your Friend
Who doesn’t love attention? If kids can’t get positive attention from you, they’ll find another way to get it, Cancellier said. It won’t be pretty.
Little kids want to do everything their parents do — even the tedious stuff. They want to help vacuum, set the table, and cook dinner. So let them.
“Typically, a parent will say, ‘No, no, no sweetheart. You’re too little. Go and play with your brother,’” she said. “We’ve taught them that their offer of help is not useful. But then, they’ll go into another room and make trouble so you come in.”
One of her students taught his 2-year-old to put placemats and silverware on the dining room chairs before dinner. Then he would place them on the table. His daughter understood that she was contributing to the family.
“What they get is a sense of being of value,” Cancellier said. “They think, ‘I’m a significant person here.’”
Preschoolers can rip lettuce for a salad, wash fruit and put it in a serving bowl, and measure baking ingredients. Kindergarteners, with careful training and under close supervision, can use knives to cut food, she said. Keep at it and, by the age of 10, they’ll be making dinner one night a week.
The benefits last well beyond the first years. Teens need to know survival skills like cooking, Cancellier said.
“If they get out in the world and everyone else knows how to do something and they don’t, they don’t feel good about themself and they fall apart,” she said.
Maintaining a routine of physical activity has proven to be an important part of promoting self-esteem in kids. According to a study published in PLOS One, fitness is directly related to an increase in both self-worth and individuality. And the association is even stronger when it comes to school-based and gym-based activities.
So if you think you’re saving your child from embarrassment and self-esteem issues by letting them opt out of gym class, you may be doing just the opposite.
Practice Solving Problems
How many times have you rushed to get out of the house on time, but found your plans thwarted by a child who insists on wearing shorts on a morning when it’s 45 degrees outside? They throw themselves on the floor, saying they won’t move if you make them wear pants.
Sure, you could try to reason with them: “You should wear pants because it’s cold outside.”
But in “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child,” author John Gottman, a psychologist better known for his work with couples, suggests that you’ll get further by acknowledging your child’s feelings rather than dismissing or ignoring them. Once they’ve calmed down, you can discuss the problem and brainstorm solutions.
The method also works well when two children are fighting over a toy, Cancellier said. She recommends that parents ask the children to come up with solutions. If they don’t have any, you might suggest something simple, such as using a timer to force them to take turns.
She recalled using that trick with children in PEP’s childcare program. The kids tried the timer, but then came up with their own way to share the toy.
Kids Like Rules That Make Sense
Parents have lots of rules. The right ones can give kids a sense of security and consistency that helps them develop self-esteem. It’s easy to understand why they have to hold your hand while crossing the road. If they break the rule, you’ll put them in a stroller to keep them safe.
“When kids see that there are limits, and those limits make sense, even though they push against them, they know, ‘My parent has my back,’” Cancellier said.
Emily Kopp is a mom of twins and lives in the Washington, D.C. area. She is a journalist with over 13 years of experience reporting and editing for both broadcast and digital platforms at local, national, and international levels. Find out more about her work at EmilyKopp.com.