When Torrey, my oldest child, began school, somehow I felt she no longer needed my approval as much as before. She was older and other people, like her teachers, were in charge. Because Daddy was so busy, I began to miss key events in her life, such as her kindergarten play.
Absent Parents Leads to Low Self-Esteem
Not long after that, I was walking in my neighborhood and heard the shouts of six-year-olds playing soccer. I sat down to watch the game and noticed that of the thirty boys on the two teams, only four parents had taken the time to come watch their children play. Suddenly, I realized the absent parents had left their children in the hands of the coaches. Yet, the coaches were not concerned with giving individual attention to each player. The players whose ability and performance was outstanding received the coaches’ special attention.
As I returned home that day, I inwardly judged all those absent parents. How would they be able to encourage and communicate with their children if they couldn’t make it to a simple soccer game? Yet my judgment turned to guilt as I realized I’d done the same thing to Torrey. For her first five years I raised her to believe she was valuable and important, always applauding her, not merely her performances. But I had pulled back, and I now understood that if I “subcontracted” my daughter to others, she would begin to look to others for approval.
Fortunately for Torrey, I realized I had failed her, and quickly returned to my role as her cheerleader and encourager.
What is self-esteem?
Most of us parents want our children to be confident and happy, with a positive self-image. Yet we often choose the wrong means to reach a good end. The problem boils down to definition. Just what is this thing called self-esteem?
Self-esteem is how we value ourselves. However, we cannot build self-esteem by looking at ourselves or only through outside sources, such as a marriage partner, college degree, or job. We form self-esteem by evaluating the way other significant people view us.
My friend Joel is an artist who often displays his paintings at weekend art shows. Joel will sit near his booth to observe how people respond to his art. He often finds it difficult to hear them comment on his paintings. “Those paintings are pieces of me,” he explains, “and sometimes people do not like what they see. But I need to hear their comments in order to judge how well I am doing.”
Our self-esteem is closely tied to who we think we are, and we decide our value by how others react to us. Our children do the same, and they are watching us to see how we react to them.
The significant people around us act as mirrors, reflecting back to us our identity and value. Yet often, these “mirrors” do not reflect an accurate image, because the images are shaped by others’ personal needs and difficulties. Sometimes even parents cannot reflect a true image to their children, leaving their kids feeling unloved and worthless.
Lisa’s parents were a classic example of a warped mirror image. When she was a child, they often told her she was fat, leading her to believe that to be valuable to them and others, she must not be overweight. She began to derive her self-identity solely on how she looked. Even at twenty Lisa was trim and fit, yet she still thought of herself as fat, which led to anorexia.
Lisa was probably unaware that she sought her parents’ approval through controlling her weight. We gain self-esteem through a subjective, unconscious process as we seek to perceive and evaluate how others see us.
In addition to parents, peers hold a strong influence on children as they develop self-esteem. Unfortunately, today’s children spend more time with peers than parents, and begin to change to please those outside the family. Yet a child’s friends will never be able to give him or her the feedback necessary to develop a positive self-concept. Healthy self-esteem is best nurtured at home.
Self-esteem is an ongoing process, a daily evaluation. Parents are the front line in helping their children learn to value themselves, and to see themselves as individual creations of God, designed for His purposes.
As your children prepare to head back to school this month, don’t subcontract the building of their self-esteem to their teachers, coaches and peers. Be involved in their lives. Let your mirror reflect back to them the positive reminder that the Master Designer, with unique and wonderful gifts, created them. Let that reflection form the foundation of a healthy self-esteem throughout your children’s lives.
Excerpted from Raising Confident Kids by Dr. Robert G. Barnes Jr. Visit parentingonpurpose.org for more advice from Dr. Bob Barnes and Torrey Roberts.
For more articles by Dr. Bob Barnes and Torrey Roberts, visit goodnewsfl.org/author/dr-bob-barnes-and-torrey-roberts/