Where does self-esteem come from?

Everyone talks about self-esteem … boosting it when it’s low, building it in our children and in ourselves. There are those who believe that “not winning the trophy or game” hurts budding self-esteem. And, instead of looking at where self-esteem comes from, their easy answer is you win if you show up, teams are assigned and everyone gets a trophy. But, I don’t think that builds self-esteem. In fact, just the opposite. It destroys it. I think empty praise and meaningless accomplishments give kids the idea that adults don’t believe they are capable of competing and winning. I think it keeps them from learning to navigate complex social relationships. It keeps them from trying hard things and especially from learning from failure. It creates apathy.

When nothing is at stake, nothing is gained. Nothing matters. Just think about the sense of apathy we see today in younger generations. Maybe through trying to spare their feelings and artificially prop up their esteem, we’ve taught our kids that hard work doesn’t matter because the rewards are the same across the board. When was the last time you experienced a steep learning curve that made you a better person? Perhaps, it was the last time you figured out the route you were taking to achieve your goal wasn’t quite right … the time you rerouted to figure out another answer.

I’m not advocating being harsh or critical or forcing your kids into a hyper competitive situations where they never feel they rate. I am advocating gently persuading them to do hard things. Because doing hard things teaches mastery and instills a sense of competence. It builds self-esteem. So does perseverance. And, more than that, research shows there are four main senses across which self-esteem is built:

The Sense of Connectiveness
Kids must be able to gain satisfaction from the people, places, or things they feel connected to. This includes feeling comfortable with their own bodies, feeling they are an important part of a group, feeling they belong to something or someone, and feeling a connection to a past or heritage.
• What groups do they belong to? Family group? Church group? Sports group? If you child is not part of a group, make it your goal to get them into at least one.

The Sense of Uniqueness

Kids must acknowledge and respect the qualities and characteristics about themselves that are special and different, and receive confirmation from others that these qualities are good. This includes being affirmed for what they are rather than being judged for what they aren’t.
• What about your child is truly unique? Find ways to celebrate that. Do they have super curly hair? Long legs? A great singing voice? Kids don’t want to be different from their peers, but those differences in them are special and feeling great about what’s different helps them build self-esteem.

The Sense of Power
Kids need to have the competence to do what they must, the resources they need to express their competence, and the opportunity to use their competence to influence important circumstances of their lives. This includes believing that they can do what they set out to do, feeling comfortable with responsibility, feeling in charge of their own lives, and being able to use the skills that they do have in appropriate situations.
• Let your child make choices. Every day. Maybe it would be faster for you to clean their rooms, do their laundry or fix their breakfast. Letting them decide when and how these things will happen and then allowing them to achieve those means they learn they can do things. Things that matter in the grown-up world because it’s how you take care of yourself. It’s the small accomplishments every day that lead to bigger ones later on.

The Sense of Models
Kids must be able to refer to human, philosophical, and operational models to help make sense of the world and then use these models as reference points for establishing their own goals, values and standards. This includes knowing people they want to be like, feeling a sense of purpose and future, and having values that guide their behavior.
• Do you know who your child’s role models are? Talk to them about it. Figure out if these people have good qualities you’d like your child to emulate. If not, help them find appropriate role models.

We all need a strong sense of self. A sense of mastery is important because in the real world, we compete every day. A strong sense of self helps keep you in the game and moving toward your goals. Actively working now to help your child build self-esteem is essential to helping them be the best they can be.

By the way, these four main senses across which you build self-esteem work for adults, too.

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