In my previous column, I wrote that helping to foster a positive self-image in one’s children is the greatest gift parents can give them. Similarly, self-like (not to be confused with narcissistic self-worship) is a key component in having a successful life.
When you feel good about yourself, it causes other people to feel good about you as well. If you perceive yourself to be a “winner” and walk around with confidence and self-assurance, people will gravitate to you – because they subconsciously think that your “winner-ness” will rub off on them by association.
That is why so many people are besotted with sports. When their team wins, fans (which comes from the word “fanatic”) are ecstatic because it makes them feel special. It’s success by proxy. A stranger hitting a home run (and getting very well paid for his efforts) does not make the fan wealthier or important, but a few brief moments of feeling “part of it,” of saying, “We won” and thus feeling better about himself is better than nothing for the average Joe. Like the song says, “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.” It is human nature to want to associate with people who are on top. In everyday human interactions, like dating or finding potential employees, that sentiment extends to people who exude confidence and self-respect.
Interestingly, while good looks, wealth or yichus might help a person be successful, it is the positive self-esteem that these assets tend to generate that often leads to that success – not the attributes themselves. There are people who lacked money, looks or status but yet were very successful in their personal and/or professional lives. Conversely, others, born with everything going for them were “losers” in every sense of the word. The big, mitigating factor was whether they had a positive or negative sense of who they were.
As I was growing up, there was tremendous pressure on me to be “popular,” to have lots of friends and be invited out. I If I stayed home on a Saturday night or had no plans on a Sunday afternoon, I felt like a “loser.” The harder I tried to make friends, the more difficult it became – because nothing turns people off like desperation. Conversely, nothing attracts people like confidence.
I remember going to a Bnei Akiva function for teenagers that was “mixed” (as was the norm in those days), and seeing a girl who, without any prejudice, can best be described as being a “plain Jane from an average family.” While not attractive in her looks, she attracted attention. As soon as she walked into the room, many of the guys and girls greeted her.
What did she have, I wondered, that made people want to be with her – when she was so ordinary? And what was I missing? I knew I was better looking and made an effort to be friendly (even going out of my way to ingratiate myself by doing favors), and yet I was usually on the sidelines – never the center of attention. It was much later that I came to realize that what she had – and what I was lacking – was confidence. It showed in her easygoing manner, her posture, and the way she held her head up. She believed herself to be worth knowing despite her ordinariness. Thus, everyone believed it too.
On the other hand, there are men and women who have money and status, but see themselves as being inadequate or unlikable. This leads to self-doubt, even self-loathing. And in a desperate attempt to escape their emotional pain, or to shore up their low self-esteem, they partake in harmful activities and behaviors that ultimately fail. This only brings them down even further.
What causes an ordinary child to feel self-assured and valuable, enabling him/her to reach for and attain their life goals? And, likewise, what causes those born with so many assets to feel they have little value – and will most likely not live up to their great potential?
I strongly believe that the biggest contributing factor is how parents make their children feel about themselves. Later on, the words, attitudes and actions of siblings, teachers and friends will have a significant impact – but not as big as those of their parents’. Chronically critical or emotionally absent parents and, conversely, mothers and fathers who encourage and praise their children and are respectful of their children’s opinions and feelings – whether they are toddlers or teenagers – can make or break their kids.
Young children see their parents as all-knowing, as parents are their first source of information. So when parents tell their child, “You are stupid, you are hopeless,” the child believes this to be true. It is like Torah to them. Likewise, if a child hears that he/she is special, they will believe it – because Mommy and Totty know everything. If parents are there for them, both physically and emotionally, or if they are not there for them, that will make all the difference as to whether the children become well adjusted, contented human beings.
It isn’t enough to feed their bodies. You must nourish their souls as well.