Picture this: there are children in a room, competing in a contest of who can build the best tower. The judge walks in. He walks around the room, examining the towers, and then chooses the winning tower. The child who wins stands tall, chest out, grinning at those around him. The children who did not win look away, some might try to speak but their voices will crack. Others might knock their towers over.
Are any of the “losers” still proud of their tower? Are they proud of themselves for having participated in the contest?
In her book, The Confident Child: Raising Children to Believe in Themselves, social psychologist Terri Apter describes the above situation as part of a research experiment that she conducted in graduate school. In reality, the judge was declaring the winning tower at random. The aim of the study was to observe children’s responses to success or failure. The youngest children (two- and three-year-olds) barely responded to winning or losing, but Apter remembers that many of the older “losers” were too embarrassed to even face her and others hunched over and stared at their ankles, willing their tears to go away.
Apter uses this anecdote to begin her book on raising children with confidence in the modern age. She was greatly affected by watching children gain, lose, or maintain their confidence when arbitrarily winning or losing a relatively insignificant contest. She explains that parents fight a daily internal battle to “attain a balance between teaching children that they must do their best, and that they are “the best” regardless of what they do… We do have to teach our children how to achieve, and we do have to encourage them to feel better about achieving than failing. We have to work on their behalf – and sometimes against their inclinations – to inspire them to develop their potential. But while we do this, we risk making them feel awful about themselves. This self-defeat can consume enormous energy as a child seeks to protect herself from its blows. The child can create disguises and defenses that blind us to her real feelings and real needs. To help our children sustain the confidence that motivates them and fills them with hope for their future selves, we have to understand what self-esteem is. For self-esteem is the key to a child’s bright future. But what is it, and how is it maintained?
She explains that self-esteem has a huge impact on successful development, and has more impact on a child’s growth than intelligence or natural ability. When children believe they have value and have the skills that justify this belief, they will have greater belief in their future successes. In turn, they will work harder and longer at a task simply because they believe that they can do it, and this will ultimately ensure higher levels of performance and completion. Apter also links confidence and self-esteem to Daniel Goleman’s theory of emotional intelligence which I have written about in the past. In his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, Goleman explains his concept of emotional intelligence:
Abilities, such as being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize and to hope… And while there are those who argue that IQ cannot be changed much by experience or education, I will show that the crucial emotional competencies can indeed be learned and improved upon by children – if we bother to teach them.
Emotional intelligence therefore grounds children as people who can interact positively with others and continue to develop even as the playing field gets more difficult and challenging.
How Can Parents Help?
One way you can help build self-esteem is by praising the child’s actions, rather than his or her essence. For instance, if a child constructed a tall tower out of blocks, you can say, “You built that tower really well. You made it very tall,” rather than saying, “You’re a good builder.” The former message allows the child to understand that he can do “good” things – but does not label him in anyway.
Another way to help build self-esteem is to criticize a child’s actions when he or she does something wrong, rather than criticizing the child himself. For instance, if a boy yells really loudly in shul, instead of saying, “You are such a troublemaker,” say, “Yelling in shul is not appropriate because people are trying to daven. But, when you take a shower after Shabbos, you can close the door and yell all you want.” This is a three step process of 1) Don’t do that; 2) why; and 3) an alternative. Through this process, the child recognizes that you trust him as a capable person who can understand and take care of himself.
A final way to build self-esteem in your children and your family is simply to tell each other when you enjoy each other’s company. Saying things like, “Good morning. It’s nice to see you,” or “I love holding your hand when we walk,” allows others to recognize that you love them for who they are, instead of what they do for you.
A Jewish Take on Self-Esteem and Self-Reliance
The reality is that occasionally children need to experience disappointment and failure in order to understand how to overcome it in the future. Dr. Wendy Mogel, in her book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teaching to Raise Self-Reliant Children, writes about the importance of balance in Jewish parenting:
Parents’ urge to overprotect their children is based on fear – fear of strangers, the street. Fear of the child’s not being invited to the right parties or accepted by the right schools… Real protection means teaching children to manage risks on their own, not shielding them from every hazard… Children need an opportunity to learn about the “wave-pattern” of emotions. If parents rush in to rescue them from distress, children don’t get an opportunity to learn that they can suffer and recover on their own.
Here, Mogel asserts that children need to fail in order to understand that they can survive failure and recover. What would Mogel say about those poor children who lost the tower building contest? If they had an adult who stood by them and let them know that their efforts were great and they could keep on working at it the next time, they would be better off and more confident in the future!