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How children develop self esteem

Dr Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D

Infants and toddlers are lucky they don't judge themselves by the standards of adults. Would adults keep trying to learn a new language if, after months of work, they couldn't say a single word? How many of us would simply smile and pick ourselves up after waddling headfirst into the leg of a chair?

A child's first three years are laced with more failure than he would emotionally tolerate by the time he is five. That change is marked by the child's development of a self-concept—labels and feelings that quickly become as much a part of the child's identity as his name. It is an image of himself that the child will carry into adulthood.

One of the first tasks in forming that self-concept is differentiating between doing something badly and being someone bad. It is a learned skill that is hindered or helped by how parents talk to their children. Some studies indicate that it is more difficult for young girls to make this distinction than it is for young boys.

This sex difference appears to continue into adulthood. Interviewed about their activities and emotions, women report feeling more shame (a judgment of themselves) and men report feeling more guilt (a judgment of their behaviour) when describing things they've done wrong.

There's some evidence that part of that difference between the sexes may be traced back to the way their parents talked to them before they were three years old. Developmental psychologists at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey have noted that parents who are helping their toddlers tend to use different words when talking to boys than when talking to girls.

The comments to their sons were mostly about the task—statements like "good job" or "I like the way you put that piece into the puzzle." Daughters, however, were more often told things like, "You're such a good girl!"—evaluations of them as people rather than comments on what they did. Other studies have shown that teachers often unconsciously fall into the same pattern.

The problem, as far as self-esteem is concerned, is the usefulness of the information. If you tell me (a child) that I have done something well or poorly, I can use that information to adjust my behaviour to improve. I can also use that information to reach the conclusion that I should feel proud of what I've done.

The next time I do that task, whether it is stacking blocks, reading aloud, or washing my hands before eating dinner, I can evaluate my own performance and, this time without relying on my parents' judgment, feel good about what I've done. If I show up next week for a meal and have dirt on my hands, not only do I know that this isn't acceptable behaviour, but I also know how to correct the situation—and equally important, I know that I can correct it.

On the other hand, if all you tell me is that I'm a good boy or a bad boy, I don't know what to repeat or what to change. I am dependent upon you for evaluations of my work. It's much more difficult for me to reward myself for a job well done. I must look to outsiders for their opinions to know how I am doing. I may know that having dirty hands at the dinner table is wrong, but I don't have the information to know what's right or whether I can make it right.

This is not to say that parents should never tell their children that they are good boys or good girls. Quite the contrary. Every child needs to hear those sweet words. However, it helps to mix such praise with specific comments about the things children are doing well, so that they can practice the more sophisticated task of judging themselves. Keep in mind that it's almost always more useful for children to hear what they're doing right than what they're doing wrong.

Another difficulty faced by some children has less to do with the specific labels they apply to themselves than to the number of those labels. An active preschooler who is repeatedly told he's a troublemaker may get caught in the cycle of making trouble for the teacher to get the attention he needs. It is the only approach he knows will work. His self-image becomes crystallised around this one aspect of his behaviour.

Studies of children this age conducted at Yale University show that those who have too limited a range of beliefs about themselves do not adapt well to elementary school and other new situations. They have significantly more difficulty learning to read and write than their classmates do.

Children who have more multifaceted self-images, which may include believing that they are artistic, inquisitive, funny, and thoughtful as well as troublemakers, are much more adaptive to change. If something they try doesn't work in the new situation, they have other approaches that they feel comfortable using.

Although a four-year-old who keeps telling you that he's a bad boy is sending clear signals about trouble with his self-concept, many children give off much more subtle messages. Sometimes the children who are no problem to their parents should be looked at more closely. This is especially true if those children are extremely obedient and have few friends their own age. A good self-concept allows children to explore the world, risk engaging in conflict and failing. Children who play it safe by never disobeying or risking conflict may be telling you that they feel unqualified to face the world head-on.

Dr. Lawrence Kutner is one of America's best-known speakers, writers, broadcasters and psychologists specialising in families and children. Dr Kutner is a child behaviour columnist and contributing editor of Parenting, BabyTalk and Family Life magazines, ParentTime.com and Pampers.com, and the former child behaviour columnist for the New York Times and Parents magazine. Dr Kutner is also a member of the psychiatry faculty of Harvard Medical School, an international consultant, and the author of five books on making sense of children's behaviours. You can read more insightful articles written by Dr Kutner by visiting his website.