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— Fostering a Positive Sense of Self —
When a baby is born, so is a parent. And with this birth comes a whole host of hopes and dreams for your precious little one. You want the world for your child, and you want your child to be upheld by the world. The desire to ensure that your baby grows up happy and healthy, feeling loved and fulfilled is visceral — you want it with your whole being.
My husband and I spend a lot of time thinking about the values and beliefs that we want to instill in our children. We reflect almost daily on how we are doing, what is working, and what we could do better on. My daughter is just shy of 3 years old, and she is at an age where she really engages with the world around her, and pays attention to how things work. We are able to communicate and have conversations, and I get to be witness to the amazing person she is becoming. That’s not to say there aren’t days where I’m fearful she will become an evil villain, and those days are frequent with some legitimate concern, but often she allows me glimpses into the future of the superb child and adult she will be.
One thing that I want so badly for her to internalize and believe completely is that she is beautiful. I don’t mean aesthetically beautiful — though she is, and I do want her to know that too. But more importantly, I want her to know she has a beautiful, majestic heart.
I want for her self-talk to be positive and encouraging.
I want for her to unapologetically take up space and to advocate for herself and others.
I want for her to own, and be unshakably proud of, who she is and how she is.
Now, I can want these things all day long, but if they are ever to be realized, I as her mama have to act.
You know, “walk the walk”.
And if you want the same for your children, then you need to act too.
The following are 10 ways that my husband and I work daily to support the development of our children’s tenacious sense of self and to encourage positive self-esteem:
1) We are careful with the words we use to describe our kids, especially in front of them. When our daughter was a young toddler, her energy level and curiosity were through the roof. This led her to be endearingly called a “hurricane” by friends and family, and even by my husband and me. Then we took a step back and realized that we could be creating a negative self-fulfilling prophecy if our daughter were to hear that nickname and internalize it. It may seem harmless, and you may feel that I’m making a big deal of nothing, but really think about it. If those who love you more than anything in the world think and speak negatively about you, even if it’s meant to be lighthearted or tongue-in-cheek, and whether you overhear it, or hear it directly, you will begin to believe it. If you look back at your own childhood, you may realize that you have inaccurate or unfair core beliefs about yourself because of something as seemingly inane as this.
2) We describe in detail to our children the qualities and traits that they have that we admire, and the effect these on others. If my son shares a toy, I say “That was so kind! You were caring when you shared your toy with your sister, and she feels so happy!” If my daughter is working on a puzzle, I say “Look how hard you’re working to figure out where the pieces go! I feel proud when I see you keep trying! You’re so determined!” Both my kids are super exploratory, which can mean they are often getting into things that they should not be. It’s not easy to respond appropriately, but if I can, it might go something like this, “You love to explore and learn about things! Your curiosity is amazing! I can’t let you play with X, though, so let’s explore Y instead.”
3) We praise positive behaviors. All of us like some recognition now and then, right? Well before we adults developed the internal resources to not need consistent external praise to feel good about ourselves, we needed to hear it from those we trust. (No judgment — a lot of us still do need or want this!) What my husband and I do is to first notice, and then highlight when our children make choices we are happy with. This isn’t always easy because good behaviors so often go under the radar, but we make an effort to pay attention and point out the good that we see. And, we are specific. Think: “you listened so well to your coach during practice!” vs “good job”.
4) We separate the misbehavior from the child: It’s so much easier to notice and comment on negative behaviors, as they stand out from our expected baseline. When a negative behavior is worth using as a teachable moment (and we’ve learned that many are not!), my husband and I do our best to identify the unwanted action and separate it from our children. What I mean by this is that we do not put down our children’s whole self and identity with phrases like “you’re a bad girl/boy”. If they did something we are upset about, we talk about how they made a bad choice or chose to do something against the rules or hurtful to others, and what they could do differently next time. This distinction is important because we want our children knowing they, inherently and without effort, are “good”. This sets them up to have a positive self-esteem.
5) We hold boundaries, but allow for some flexibility. My husband and I employ a democratic parenting style most of the time, but I know we sometimes accidentally lean towards authoritarian (What the heck am I talking about? See my post on parenting styles here!). We want obedient kids, but we also want our kids to grow into free-thinking adults. So we have to find a middle ground — which doesn’t always mean in the center. We make conscious efforts to occasionally give in to our children’s extra requests, like an extra story, a couple more minutes playing, or a second Hershey Kiss chocolate. We do this show to them that if they want to aim higher or reach further, they just might achieve it. We also believe it teaches persistence, a hugely important adult life skill.
6) We regard their and our bodies as amazing tools and machines that are to be respected, protected, and fueled. We often praise their and our bodies. During dance time, playing soccer, practicing gymnastics, you name it, we acknowledge how amazing our bodies are. “Wow, your strong legs let you jump so high!” “Whoa your tummy is so strong to flip yourself over like that!” We want their bodies to be about so much more than appearance. Similarly, we talk about food as fueling our powerful bodies. Our daughter is not that fond of eating, and our son can eat lots, so we are dealing with two sides of the spectrum. Either way, we want our kiddos to listen to their bodies and notice when they feel full, or if they still feel hungry. We want them to have healthy relationships with food where food is not just fat, calories, carbs. It is nourishment to help their bodies and brains grow.
7) We believe in a growth mindset. We see intelligence, learning, and capability as having a starting point with room to grow through effort, and we teach this to our kids. This means that any “failure” is not due to simply not being able to do something, but instead is a learning experience from which to grow. We are teaching them that they have power, in that if they are willing to put in effort, they will see their skills improve. Along with this, and tied to my point on praise, is that we praise effort and hard work more than we praise results.
8) We let them experience “failure” and we guide them through tolerating uncomfortable feelings. People fear that praising children can lead to entitlement and a sense that “everyone deserves a trophy”. Because the praise that my husband and I give is so specific and tied to effort, it will not have this umbrella effect. Similarly, we do not prevent our children from experiencing challenges and let downs. We want them to learn how to overcome obstacles by tolerating and pushing tough experiences. You begin to fear “failure” less if you know you can deal with the feelings that surface and move on. They can’t learn this — or experience the swell of pride and growth of sense of self that comes from prevailing — if we don’t let them work their way over an obstacle.
9) We encourage problem-solving and independence. My husband and I can often be heard asking the kids “what is your plan?” If my daughter cannot find her favorite shoes, or my son drops a coveted toy, we do not fix these problems for them (at least not at first). We help them come up with a problem-solving approach. We talk and walk through with our daughter where she had her shoes last, where she usually puts them, where she thinks she might have left them. We guide our son to getting down on the floor and reaching for his toy under the table. We applaud their efforts and step in to help when needed. Our daughter, who is not yet 3, can dress and undress herself, get on and off shoes and socks, brush her own teeth, take herself to the bathroom (though we still wipe…we are not ready for that mess yet!), clean up her toys, and the list goes on. I say this not to brag, but to show how much we know she is capable of, and how capable she feels because we have taught the beginnings of how to solve her problems.
10) We let them see us complimenting and uplifting ourselves. This is a big one!! And can be hard, especially if you have your own negative self-talk monster. Your kids will learn how to treat themselves from how you treat them and what you’ve taught them about themselves, but maybe more importantly they will learn this from how they see you treat yourself. If our kids hear me speak about my body, it’s in terms of its function (“My arms are so strong so that I can hold you!”) or it’s in praise (“I love my body!”). This can be a fake-it-til-you-make-it sort of thing if you really don’t feel that way. You’ll find that even just saying such nice things about yourself to yourself can shift your perspective. Even if they are watching when I weigh myself (which to be honest is not that frequent because I don’t think to do it often), I say something like “perfect for me!” My ever-the-mimic daughter hopped on the scale yesterday and cheered “yay! 7 points!”. She has no idea what a scale is for but she thinks it’s a happy thing, so I feel like I’ve done my job.
11) BONUS! I couldn’t stop at ten because I thought this one was super important too! If somebody gives you a compliment, whether or not you are in front of your kids (because I want my post to benefit not just them and their self-esteem, but you too), say “Thank you”. Do not dismiss their kinds words. Do not say “thanks, but..”. Accept the compliment from them, and then accept it for yourself. You’re amazing. You really are.
Take some of these points on board and try them out for yourself. Modify them. Make them work for you and your kids. If you implement any of these ideas you will see an improvement in their sense of self, and in your own.
This seems like a pretty simple formula, right?….
You (innately good) + Ability to make positive choices for yourself and others = Great foundation to feel happy and secure about who you are and how you interact with the world.
Imagine the power you will give to your children by fostering their sense of self in this way!
Love and hugs,
Christina is the writer behind the blog Real Life Mama. She is a mom two littles, a 4-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. Christina and her family live in San Diego, where she is a full-time mama, part-time mental health therapist (LPCC), and round-the-clock blogger, writer, and author. If she ever gets a moment to herself, she can be found singing at the top of her lungs, cooking, and crafting. Thanks for reading!