Not long ago, a friend of mine had a baby. As I looked out the window at the rows of babies lying in their bassinets, I was struck by how similar they looked. Yes, some had dark hair, some curly hair, and some had no hair at all. Some were larger or slightly heavier than others, but for the most part they were practically the same. What would they be like, I wondered, if they returned as adults for a reunion? What would we find?
Both research and common sense tell us that we would find that some people took life by the tail and made the most of it. Some would be business or art successes. Others would be exceptional parents, teachers, lawyers, nurses, etc. Statistics also tell us that we would find others whose futures had taken quite a different turn. Some would have drug or alcohol addictions. Others would somehow simply be unable to make their lives work.
I began to think about the cause of these incredibly varied results: How is it possible that all these children who started out so the same ended up so differently? Oh, I suppose some of the discrepancy could be passed down to genetics, but what about the rest? Did a fairy fly around the room with magic dust and sprinkle some but not others? No, unless reality was created by Walt Disney.
In the last 25 years of working with people in my therapy practice and as a parent educator, I have found that the single most important factor that determines whether children grow up to be happy and successful is their self-esteem. A child’s self-esteem affects every area of his existence, from the friends he chooses, to how well he does in school, the type of job he pursues, and even the person he chooses to marry. But what exactly is this illusory, intangible thing called self-esteem?
Simply defined, self-esteem is the feeling of being loved and capable. When these two qualities are in sync, a child has high self-esteem. Children first need to know that they are loved and accepted for who they are. So with this as a foundation, your natural impulse is to take that love and learn to contribute it to the world in a constructive way. It is not difficult to see that self-esteem is the best gift you can give your children.
As you work to give your child this wonderful gift, the most important thing to understand is this: Self-esteem evolves in children primarily through the quality of our relationships with them. During the first years of their lives, you are their main influence. Later teachers and friends enter the scene. But especially in the beginning, you do it with a capital I.
We are mirrors for our children
Because children view parents as authority figures, they think that the way you treat them is the way they deserve to be treated: “What you say about me is what I am” is a literal truth for your child. . Consequently, when children are treated with respect, they conclude that they deserve respect and thus develop respect for themselves. When children are treated with acceptance, they develop self-acceptance; when they are appreciated, they conclude that they deserve to be loved and develop self-esteem. On the contrary, if they are mistreated or abused, they conclude that they deserve it too.
Parents are, in effect, mirrors: what we reflect to our children becomes the basis for their self-image, which in turn influences all areas of their lives. To put it another way, who our children are is not as important as who they think they are.
Bathe your children with love
Passing on our love to our children is the number one priority in building a healthy sense of self-worth in our children. It should come before any other aspect of the parenting process, such as setting limits or correcting behavior. Your children need to know first and foremost that no matter what they do, even if you don’t like or approve of their actions, you will still love them.
Children need tangible demonstrations of your love. They, like adults, need to be told directly and frequently, “I love you.” No one ever came up to me at the end of a parenting seminar and said, “Could you tell my husband to stop telling me he loves me?” We can never hear “I love you” too often. Our children do not automatically feel loved simply because they are part of a family.
Your unconditional love should be the foundation of your relationship with your children. Unconditional love is loving your children for who they are, not what they do. Our children shouldn’t have to earn our love, acceptance, or respect. It is your birthright and must be given free of charge.
Unconditional love requires loving your children no matter what you expect them to be and, most difficult, no matter how they act. By this I do not mean that we like or accept inappropriate behavior, but with unconditional love we love the child even in those moments when we do not like what he does.
I’m not going to pretend this is easy. It is not. Unconditional love is not something that you will achieve every minute of every day. But, it is the thought that we must have in our hearts every day. The underlying message of unconditional love is, “I love you no matter what you do. I am 100 percent committed to you and will be here for you through thick and thin.” These types of messages are infallible builders of healthy self-esteem.