This is part 1 of a six-part series on how to promote positive self-esteem, emotional wellbeing and confidence in children and teenagers.
“Try not to become a person of success but rather a person of value.”
Parents frequently worry that their children have low confidence or feel self-critical or negative about themselves. Sometimes their concerns are localised to a particular area, such as a child being shy or having trouble making friends or feeling disconnected or struggling at school. In many cases and especially with older children, these feelings can present as depression or low mood, and parents can become particularly worried about this as they head into the teenage years.
When parents hear their children expressing self-doubt or making negative self-statements, naturally they want to find ways to improve their confidence and to help them feel better emotionally.
When I meet them, they ask me directly how they can improve their child’s self-esteem. They want me to tell them how can they help their child or teenager feel better about themselves. When faced with these questions, I have come to realise that often parents are asking the wrong question or certainly not thinking about the problem in a way that will easily lead to a solution.
Traditional parenting and self-esteem
The importance of self-esteem and feeling good about oneself is a relatively new concept in the field of psychology. The “positive psychologist” Martin Seligman links it to the development of personality psychology, which replaced the notion of virtue and character. Those notions had been the traditional guiding factors in parenting.
The goal of traditional parenting was to instill character and to teach children virtue and how to live the good life. Psychologists, nervous about using value-laden terms such as “character”, replaced these with more neutral terms such as “personality”. The goal of parenting was reset to one of helping children have good self-esteem, with the idea that children who feel good about themselves would invariably act responsibly.
However, by shifting the focus of modern parenting from building character to encouraging self-esteem, the baby may have been thrown out with the bathwater.
Paradoxically, it is by leading a life of social responsibility that we gain self- esteem rather than the other way round. Self-esteem and feeling good about yourself is not the goal you should have, but rather the byproduct of efforts to build character and to live a good life in the service of others. Good self-esteem is the fruit of a life of hard work, developing one’s strengths and talents and expressing them in the service of others.
Happiness and wellbeing Surveying the cross-cultural research literature, Seligman and colleagues went on to identify the most common virtues and character strengths that were associated with happiness and wellbeing, both for the individual and the community in which he/she lives. In their work, six character strengths were identified:
1. Wisdom and knowledge
2. Courage and bravery
3. Love and compassion
4. Justice and fairness
5. Temperance and self-regulation
As you read the list, many of these seem self-evident: who would not want to bring up kind and compassionate children who empathise and think of others? Or who would not want their children to strive to be fair and to understand justice and equality?
However, some are more surprising. How many of us have thought of teaching our children to be courageous or brave as a means of ensuring their happiness?
In fact, courage is a virtue that is hard to teach. It is something that you know you have only when you face adversity or challenge. The best way to teach it to children is by setting them meaningful challenges and by supporting them to reflect and learn as they face the inevitable adversities they encounter growing up.
Some of the other strengths, particularly temperance, are so currently unfamiliar in modern family life that they are missing from the lexicon we use.
In our current world of instant gratification, over-consumption and addiction, we have lost the ability to delay gratification, to self-regulate and to enjoy things in moderation.
Interestingly, temperance is one of those virtues for which there is substantial evidence – especially in the famous and often repeated “marshmallow study” first conducted by Walter Mischel in Stanford University during the 1960s. In this study young children were given the option of consuming one marshmallow placed in front of them or waiting 15 minutes to gain a second one (which they would receive only if they did not eat the first).
In follow-up studies, the children who were able to delay gratification and to await the better deal of two marshmallows showed much higher success in school as well as better all-round life skills than those who chose instant gratification.
In the modern world the universal values and character strengths are not emphasised and, in fact, children are often bombarded by the reverse messages as they grow up.
Popular culture is more likely to convince children that being “attractive” is more important than being kind or that instant gratification and owning the latest gadget is more important than working hard and making a contribution.
In addition, winning or coming first can be seen as the only thing that matters, rather than doing one’s best, sharing with others or contributing to team work.
However, it is generally the latter values that lead to enduring happiness and well- being. Parents can act as a counter balance to popular culture by taking time to encourage and emphasise more enduring values in bringing up children.
Prof. John Sharry, Irish Times (originally published July 2016)
John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday. For further information on building children’s self-esteem, read John’s book: ‘Bringing Up Happy, Confident Children’.
Read PART 2 of this six-part series on building your child’s self-esteem here.