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Help your child succeed by teaching precepts of self esteem

Lisa Keating
Special to the Appeal

If you haven’t seen the movie “Akeelah and the Bee,” you really should. And you should take anyone you really care about to see it, too.

This inspiring film charmingly portrays the story of a young girl who slowly comes to believe in herself. While she goes on to be a champion, those around her with less-innate talent also come to believe in themselves in other important ways.

The basics of liking and believing in yourself don’t come easily to most people. As parents, one of our most important roles is helping our children develop positive self-esteem. Research consistently shows that having good self-esteem is highly related to having a happier and easier life.

At the beginning of the movie, Akeelah, the main heroine, states, “You know that feeling, that no matter what you do or where you go, you just don’t fit in?” It is the pain of these types of thoughts and feelings that make self-esteem so important. One of my friends, expecting a baby, said to me, “We hope she is smart, and we hope she is pretty, but we pray she has high self-esteem and happiness.”

Self-esteem develops early in childhood and is the result of how we feel others feel about us. The following suggestions have been found to instill good self-esteem in children. Keep in mind that these philosophies can generalize to adults as well.

Researchers note that lavishing praise onto children isn’t what helps build self-esteem. If you over-praise your child, this can be a set-up for pressure to be the “best, smartest, most wonderful kid ever born,” which will lead to a crash when the eventual failures come, or when even the youngest child realizes this can’t possibly be true, so the child disbelieves any compliments/praise.

The goal isn’t for your child to feel better than others; rather, it is for him or her to feel good about him/herself, irrespective of what others are doing. For example, “You are really good at math,” rather than, “You must be the smartest kid in your class!”

Help your child cope with defeats rather than minimizing them or always focusing on successes. When he/she is at a low point, listen to him/her and reassure the child that you love and support him/her. When the crisis is over, help him/her reflect on what went wrong and how to handle things better next time. Being prepared for both highs and lows in life raises self-esteem.

Remember that if you accept the good and bad in your child, your child can accept him/herself. This type of acceptance – termed unconditional acceptance – is related to the most solid self-esteem because it is based on reality. None of us is perfect after all. So, most important, recognize your child’s abilities and talents and nurture your child’s ability to see these talents. But, also see his or her negative behaviors in the context of who he/she is. And do not let those behaviors detract from your love and acceptance of your child as a whole being, warts and all.

You shouldn’t want to change a lot about your child; many of these changes are for us, not them. For instance, if your child isn’t athletic, outgoing or artistic like you had hoped, accept that this isn’t part of who he/she is.

Do focus on helping your child change behaviors that isolate, harm, or disrupt your child or family. When talking with children about a need to change something, always focus on behavior rather than character. For example, say “It is not OK to hit your sister,” instead of “You are not a good brother.”

Children who feel listened to have higher self-esteem. When your child is talking to you, look him/her in the eye, listen to what he/she says, and seek an opinion about what he/she is saying.

If you or your child doesn’t have good self-esteem, it’s not too late to practice the above “language of high self-esteem.” As spouses, siblings, friends, employers and colleagues, we should be actively “building up” those around us. Surround you and your child with nurturing people.

In summary, the following quote from Marianne Williamson was read throughout the movie and is a profound message:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

• Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.