The self-esteem movement has been in vogue in American culture for some time. It always struck me as odd to think of self-esteem as a thing that could be given to a child by another person. In my opinion, a positive sense of oneself can only come from within—and no one, even a loving parent, can simply hand it to you. Somehow the attempt renders it worthless.
I prefer the concept of self-respect anyway. Children should be given every opportunity to learn, produce, and achieve-- and the encouragement and unconditional love to help them push through barriers. Even the most talented among us need to work, to refine,and to drill in order to improve. The job is even harder for those of us less naturally gifted. But every obstacle surmounted can become the basis of self-respect. Every barrier overcome can increase self-confidence.
This is the foundation of the quality- call it independence, poise, self-reliance—that we seek to build in our children. Yet we can’t bestow it to them outright. The most we can do is give them the opportunity to triumph. The ability to think through problems and to cope with setbacks is invaluable—to life as an adult, and to the increasingly complicated and daunting world of childhood.
This is why STEP avoids praise and promotes encouragement. Praise can be empty (kids always know when you’re puffing them up); it can be manipulative (flattery to control behaviour); it can even cause doubt (would Mom or Dad still love me if I wasn’t the top student/home run king/musical virtuoso??).
Encouragement by contrast is freely given—a gift that acknowledges effort, determination, and hard work. Any child is capable of these, and so it doesn’t require any “fudging” on our behalf as sometimes does praise. It proves that we truly believe in them, in their ability to overcome. This is more precious and tangible than any puffery or flattery we might offer.
Everyone—every child—is capable of being the best that they can be. Maybe not the best at any one particular thing—but the best they can be. We may not be able to give our kids self-esteem. But it’s better for them—and our relationship—to encourage and love them to their personal best, whatever it may be. It will, by default, involve their attaining heights of courage, character and fortitude that make “self-esteem” look like thin gruel by comparison.