Self-esteem is one of the most important keys in a child’s development – especially in the first five years of life. This characteristic is crucial to their success – from forming friendships, the ability to rebound from setbacks, their willingness to get out of their comfort zone and try new things, and overall happiness.
Many parents are saying and doing things that can tear down their child’s self-image – and aren’t even aware they’re doing it. While the following tips may seem obvious, they can get lost in the hustle of daily life, job stress and schedules that are too busy.
Mistake #1: Doing too much for your child.
You shouldn’t be tying your kid’s shoes at age seven, or waiting on them hand and foot because they ‘haven’t learned’ how to do something yet. News flash: it’s YOUR job to teach them things, and teach them early. You should constantly challenge them to do things for themselves. If they aren’t challenged now, their whole life will be a challenge.
Mistake #2: Not letting them make decisions.
Children need to make their own choices and learn from them – right or wrong. Yes, you must keep them safe, and there are certain decisions they should not make, but you should make a daily effort to find ways to let them make choices. Then have a teachable moment when they feel the result of their decision. If they could have made a better choice, talk about that. If not, give them praise: “You did a great job getting dressed Sarah! I like the colors you picked out.” Her self-esteem will skyrocket. If it’s the former, just be sure to make it about the choice they made – not the child.
Mistake #3: Comparing them to other kids or siblings.
Many adults experienced this from their own parents, then carried their burden into adulthood. Never, ever say things that make a child feel inadequate, dumb, or flawed in some way. Competition is a good thing, but inadequate performance compared to so-and-so is a direct assault on their self-worth. We should all be striving to be a better person than we were yesterday, not better than little Johnny, and not better than the Joneses. Always look for opportunities to praise: “You’re getting SO much better at picking up your toys every day – I’m so proud of you!”
Mistake #4: Equating their behavior with who they are.
This is a really big one, and probably the most common parenting mistake of all. There’s no better way to ensure that bad behavior will continue than to tell your child that bad behavior is what you expect. Saying things like, “You’re so messy all the time!” or “Why don’t you ever listen to me?” is just reinforcing what kind of person you think they are. They WILL give you exactly what you expect. Instead, try something like, “You are such a neat and tidy little boy when you want to be, and that makes me really proud of you. Why don’t you show Mommy how well you can pick up your toys and put them in your toybox, then we’ll have a treat!” This way, you’re telling them they already are the way you want them to be, and suggesting a way they can prove it to themselves. Yes – reward the good behavior, and absolutely, lay the praise on thick after they do something good. Never fail to praise, and always separate the behavior from who they are.
Mistake #5: Simply not communicating enough.
Children often misinterpret what they see, hear and experience. It’s part of growing and learning. The very first time there’s a dent in their self-esteem, they will do what most people do: they will begin to find ‘evidence’ to support their belief, which leads to even more misinterpretation. You must always make a constant effort to be sure they understand things and interpret them the right way.
A good example of this is a divorce or separation of the parents. It’s completely normal for kids to internalize and think that somehow they caused it. You must be extra vigilant in situations like this, and make them understand that it’s not their fault. They need to know they are good enough just the way they are.
In fact, telling your child they are loved, wanted and worthy at every opportunity is good medicine for any level of self-esteem, and should be done daily. Focus more on praising the positive (in front of others when possible), and focus less on ‘correcting’ in a negative way. You must be intentional about it.
Above all, exemplify the behavior you want to see in them. Your children are learning how to be an adult from YOU. They will talk the way you talk, react to things the way you do, and treat others the way you do. Like it or not, you’re a walking, talking ‘how to be an adult’ live-streaming university for your child, 24/7. Make the most of it.