by Salwa Choucair
Katie naturally runs fast, jumps high and aces her weekly spelling tests. Her good friend, Emily, lacks the same athletic abilities, studies daily in order to perform well on her tests and almost always receives top honors in art contests. Fortunately, both Katie and Emily appreciate their differences and possess good self-esteem, something all parents desire for their children.
This sense of belonging, confidence and “fitting into your own skin,” so to speak, isn’t always so easy for most kids and for the parents who must guide them through the rough terrain in life. In order to be their guide, parents should first understand a definition of “self-esteem.” Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a confidence and satisfaction in oneself.”
Self-esteem, in fact, is two-fold, according to Steven R. Pliszka, M.D., a professor and chief of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
Two Sides of Self-Esteem
The two equally important sides of self-esteem are self-confidence and self-evaluation.
“Self-evaluation, also known as self-appraisal, is a realistic evaluation of what you are good at and what you are not good at,” Pliszka explains. On this particular side of self-esteem, it is important to understand a person’s natural talent, in addition to understanding how that natural talent is cultivated through hard work such as practice, study and research.
A child or person who can self-evaluate to the point where he knows his own ability and enhances that ability with additional support, has half of the self-esteem equation down pat.
On the other hand, “a child who lacks self-evaluation is always surprised,” Pliszka says, when he doesn’t perform as well as he thought he would because he didn’t study or practice as much as someone else, who may not have the same natural talent. “He hasn’t set himself up with self-evaluation.
“If you make a good self-evaluation, you make a conscious choice to excel at that particular activity or find something different.”
The other side to self-esteem is self-confidence, which is how a person feels about his evaluation – “am I going to take steps to achieve my best or am I going to change what I’m doing?”
In order to have good self-esteem, a child must first be able to self-evaluate and then feel good about that evaluation, Pliszka explains.
When it comes to enhancing her children’s self-esteem, one local mom with two daughters, ages 9 and 16, has always followed one key philosophy – honesty.
“I’m not an ‘American-Idol parent,’” says Kelly Wickens, a term she and her daughters, Kasey and Kirby, coined a few years ago as contestant after contestant on the popular series was surprised to hear for what seemed to be the first time in their lives that they could not sing. Kasey, the eldest, would even comment that their parents were not like hers or else they would know how they sounded prior to their Idol audition.
In fact, when Kasey wants the truth, she asks her mom.
“She comes to me,” Kelly says. “I’m her best critic. She knows that I won’t candy-coat it.” But, where Kasey is confident in her academic and extra-curricular activities including drama, she lacks confidence in body image; her mother understands this as well, and tries to be encouraging when it comes to this aspect of her daughter’s self-esteem.
For parents who may not have such an easy time determining how to enhance their child’s self-esteem, Pliszka explains that strategies should match a child’s developmental level. When a child is around age 3 or so, and he can dress himself and use language, he begins to interact with the world and say, ‘Now, I can.’
“As parents, we instinctively nurture that by giving praise,” Pliszka says. “At this age, 3-4, whatever the child does, we praise tremendously, and that builds self-confidence. During this phase, be careful not to be critical. It would be very destructive to say, ‘hey, there are no eyes on your picture.’ Let them win when playing games so there’s no competition at an early age.”
At the pre-kinder and kindergarten stage, it’s time to be more critical and realistic. It’s OK to say that what he is doing is wrong. During the school-age years, parents need to constantly balance praising completion of work with providing realistic criticism.
“This is when parents need to be careful to not get frustrated,” Pliszka says. “This is a gradual process. The danger in the school years is to be there for praise and remain interested in school and work activities.”
Becoming aware of their peers begins at age 7 or 8, he continues, when they notice that Katie is a good athlete or Emily is a good reader. This is a good time to remind them that while a person may have a talent, it is important to nurture that talent and work hard. A parent may suggest that Katie practices every day to be a good athlete, and Emily studies every day in order to be a better reader.
At age 13 and 14, a child still lives in a fantasy world, Pliszka says, and still may believe that he can become the next American Idol or drafted into the NBA at 18. Once more, a parent can enhance that confidence by keeping a balance. For instance, a parent could say, “You’re good, but you need to practice in order to become better.”
When determining activities for children to get involved in, which can build self-esteem, it is important to match basic ability with what the child likes, Pliszka says. “If they clearly have ability for something, don’t let them drop out, and if they like something, let them try it.”
A parent should be concerned and seek medical advice when a child’s motor coordination is a problem. For example, he can’t catch a ball, has a hard time climbing, runs oddly and draws attention to himself; or when a child is falling behind academically, possibly because of a learning disability. Both situations should be taken seriously and can lead to poor self-esteem if they are not addressed.
The opposite side of good self-esteem, Pliszka says, is excessive self-esteem, when parents praise everything their child does. A “C” is good enough and they continue through childhood never striving for their best. When they get to college and the professor doesn’t accept late papers and a one-page essay isn’t good enough, the first reaction is severe anger. This can also continue into adulthood if the situation isn’t corrected.
“The world doesn’t mold to you,” Pliszka says, when explaining a person with excessive self-esteem, and this awareness is even more key in today’s economy in which young adults are having a difficult time finding jobs and living on their own.
In fact, building a child’s self-esteem is a balancing act, with self-evaluation and self-confidence serving as the weights of equality.
Salwa Choucair is a San Antonio freelance writer and mother of two.