Building Self-Respect in Children

Chase, the father of a five-year-old girl as well as two boys, aged three and one, wrote to my husband and me asking how to build self-respect in his children. Chase read an ‘Ask the Rabbi’ answer we wrote on the topic of self-esteem vs. self-respect, but is looking for more practical advice – perfect fodder for this Practical Parenting column.   

He writes, “I often tell my kids I’m proud of them and I appreciate them. I tell them of all the amazement I see in them. Would this be too much on the self-esteem track?”

Dear Chase,

You are in a wonderful position. You, and I assume your wife, are consciously thinking about how you communicate with your children and what you want them to value. You have a wonderful adventure ahead of you.

One-year-olds are naturally full of self-respect even though it sounds odd to think about them in that way. Self-respect follows achievement. Babies are constantly learning new skills and conquering challenges. We get excited when a baby starts walking or talking and they love the attention we bestow on them for doing so, but they would be excited even without us. Something within most children pushes them to get upright and move and thrills them when they master new abilities.

As our kids get older, we sometimes inadvertently dampen their internal excitement and make them reliant instead on our approval. Schools often do this when they tamp down the natural desire for knowledge and instead train students to focus on stickers or grades. Parents too, can diminish the joy in drawing a picture or building a tower by being overly effusive. Instead of looking to outdo her own creation, the child starts looking to get a bigger external response.

It can be time-consuming and exhausting to allow a five-year-old to unload the dishwasher or set the table, but your daughter will respect herself for doing jobs that she sees her mother or you doing. Little builds self-respect as much as knowing that you are a contributing member of your society.

When she masters a new level of jigsaw puzzle or builds something with a construction set, you can certainly get excited with your daughter, but if you artificially compliment her when she actually gave up quickly on something or carelessly slapped something together, you will be trading self-respect for self-esteem. She, and her younger brother, will know when they are proud of themselves. You should reflect that pride rather than pump it up when it doesn’t belong.

I would encourage you to provide raw materials for creative play. The less technology your children have and the more things they can experiment with and employ their imagination on, the more confident they will be in their own capabilities. If you delight with them in books and play, and recognize when they show empathy or other fine character traits, I think you will find that they will develop self-respect just as adults do – by earning it. 

This has nothing to do with expressing love for your children and appreciating them for the unique individuals they are. Affection and words of love are always welcome.

Enjoy these precious years,

Susan Lapin

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