Self-Esteem: Helping Children Develop a Positive Sense of Self
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” American abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s words of wisdom seem blatantly intuitive. Nevertheless, agreement on how best to build strong children is not easy to come by, despite the fact that nearly every month a new parenting book is published, promising new and shocking insights to simplify parenting forever. Rather than simplifying the process, however, it seems that each book merely adds to the mounting literature, threatening to make a parent’s task more difficult rather than less so.
Prominent developmental researchers Nancy G. Guerra and Catherine P. Bradshaw gathered a group of their colleagues to comb through the published research with the goal of reaching a consensus on a set of attributes that could be considered common to well-adjusted youth. The project, the results of which were published in 2008, was supported in part by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
After extensive review, the researchers identified five “competencies” that emerged as core components of positive youth development: a positive sense of self, the ability to practice self-control, effective decision-making skills, a moral system of belief, and prosocial connectedness. Although Guerra and her colleagues acknowledged that additional attributes could potentially be included, the consistent message of existing research is that adolescents who demonstrate high levels of these five key assets are less likely to engage in risk behaviors and better able to become productive adults.
Although there are certainly areas of overlap among these five markers of healthy child and adolescent development, each skill presents an opportunity for a rich discussion about the role parents can play. In this article, however, we’ll address only the first of these markers, which has been at the center of child-rearing debates for decades: a positive sense of self. This is an often misunderstood asset and involves much more than the popular concept of self-esteem, which is really only one component of a positive sense of self.
The Emerging Self
According to Emory University’s Philippe Rochat, a child is not oblivious of the self even at birth. At the earliest stage, says Rochat, “infants differentiate between self- vs. non-self touch, between stimulation originating from either [their] own body or an external source.” But by the age of two, self-awareness has developed to the point that self-consciousness emerges. A two-year-old is already capable of exhibiting embarrassment or even pride.
Guerra and Bradshaw suggest that as self-awareness becomes more complex, it works interdependently with two other components of self to influence adjustment: agency and the more familiar self-esteem.
Like self-awareness, agency—an individual’s sense of personal and independent control over an outcome or event—begins to develop in infancy. Children learn very early that their own actions affect objects and people in their environment. Over time, this realization matures as they successfully complete tasks by setting goals, maintaining effort, and overcoming failure to achieve a desired result. Through repeated opportunities to test the effects of their actions, they form beliefs about their self-efficacy, their ability to perform at the level they have intended or to produce a desired result. This, it turns out, underpins an individual’s motivation to change his or her behavior and is therefore also crucial to the development of the other component of a positive sense of self: self-esteem.
Popular Psychology Weighs In
Unfortunately the importance of personal agency and self-efficacy has been too often overlooked in popular attempts to bolster self-esteem in children, often with unfortunate results.
For example, in the summer of 2005 a retired British school teacher, who was a 37-year veteran primary-level instructor, proposed a motion to her union, the Professional Association of Teachers (since then renamed Voice). She moved that the word failure be banned from classrooms and replaced with the more palatable phrase deferred success so as not to discourage students from continuing efforts to achieve. Although the motion ultimately experienced its own deferred success, it was not without supporters among the 35,000-member teachers’ association. One of them expressed his enthusiastic agreement, saying: “It’s time we made the word ‘fail’ redundant and replaced it with ‘please do a bit more.’” Though mainstream psychologists and researchers have long recognized failure as an important step toward building self-efficacy, many educators apparently found it incompatible with building self-esteem in school children.
The same year, several American newspapers reported another threat to children’s self-esteem: the use of red ink in public schools. Parents in Trumbull, Connecticut, objected to the use of red ink on the grounds that it was too stressful. The school responded by banning the offending color and substituting blue ink instead. Had the Connecticut school only been aware, several other schools around the nation had already found a compromise to red ink. The Boston Globe reported: “A mix of red and blue, the color purple embodies red’s sense of authority but also blue’s association with serenity, making it a less negative and more constructive color for correcting student papers, color psychologists said. Purple calls attention to itself without being too aggressive. And because the color is linked to creativity and royalty, it is also more encouraging to students.”
“Color psychologists” may be convinced that they’re onto something. Mainstream psychologists, however, while acknowledging that color may temporarily affect attitude and emotion, would be skeptical of its relevance to educational policy. There is certainly no research to suggest that color can have a lasting positive or negative effect on self-esteem. Like most other popular notions of how to bolster self-esteem, these “pop-psych” approaches bear little resemblance to those known in developmental psychology for more than a century. In fact, Harvard psychologist William James developed a formula for self-esteem as early as 1890. It took into consideration the role of personal agency and is still acknowledged by psychologists today. James suggested that “our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do. It is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities.” In other words, individuals cannot feel good about themselves without also doing well.
Steps to Self-Esteem
It would be nearly three-quarters of a century before another respected psychologist, Stanley Coopersmith, revisited the concept of self-esteem. In an intensive study conducted over a period of six years, he examined the subject using a variety of research methods and measures. His findings were published in 1967 as The Antecedents of Self-Esteem. But even Coopersmith, who proposes that building a healthy respect for the self is a child-rearing necessity, underscores that the parents of children with the highest self-esteem are the kind who set clear limits and define high standards of behavior, and who model these by their own examples.
“[Coopersmith] repeatedly stressed that permissiveness, the creation of a tension- and demand-free environment—which many thought would promote self-esteem—actually would lower it.”
Like James, he acknowledges the role of personal agency in self-esteem, proposing a four-part definition of what it takes for children to develop a positive self-image. First is the need for “respectful, accepting, and concerned treatment” from parents or significant others. This lays the groundwork not only for the child’s ability to accept him- or herself, but also to accept the values and guidance of those others. Second, Coopersmith points to the importance of a “history of successes.” These provide a child with a sense of reality on which to base his self-esteem. However, he says, a third element is also important: the child needs “values and aspirations” that are personally significant, against which successes can be measured. Finally, the child’s “manner of responding to devaluation” must be healthy. In other words, a child must learn how to deal appropriately with negative appraisals by others, and to feel it is possible to overcome failures.
Does this mean parents should force failures and negative appraisals on their children in order to teach them how to handle these experiences? It should go without saying that such an approach to parenting would be extremely damaging to the trust and support that should exist in parent-child relationships. Life itself provides enough such experiences for children. Obviously the parents’ role would be to guide and encourage children as they encounter obstacles to reaching their goals. And despite the fact that the popular pendulum swings alternately toward and away from endorsing praise for children, research continues to support the understanding that praise, when merited, can be a wonderful tool for reinforcing positive action. The important point is that children see through empty praise, however well-meaning it is, and a steady diet of this kind of deception can lead them to mistrust even deserved praise. When they take steps toward doing well, however, and this is acknowledged, their positive aspirations are reinforced and more attempts to do well will follow. But praise or no praise, if children are never given opportunities to try and ultimately to succeed, their attempts to make a difference will eventually cease. Psychologists know this state as “learned helplessness.”
In the late 1960s, psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues employed Pavlovian conditioning to study this phenomenon in animals. When dogs learned that they could avoid a shock by performing certain actions, they continued those actions even if doing so no longer achieved the hoped-for result. On the other hand, animals whose actions had never resulted in shock avoidance quickly learned that “nothing I do matters,” and they became passive, abandoning any attempt to affect the outcome.
This is an important understanding for parents, or for anyone whose goal is to help foster change in others. “Self-efficacy is the other side of personal responsibility for change,” say motivational researchers William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick. “To assert that a person is responsible for deciding and directing his or her own change is to assume that the person is capable of doing so. The person not only can but must make the change, in the sense that no one else can do it for him or her.”
What Miller and Rollnick call the “faith/hope effect”—belief in the ability to change—is fundamental to feeling motivated to overcome repeated failure and do well. Clinical psychological literature is replete with this theme, particularly as it relates to bolstering self-esteem.
The Importance of Failure
Considering the wealth of available research, it is unfortunate and inexplicable that in some circles the doing-well aspect of building self-esteem has been overlooked in favor of the feeling-good part of the message. Seligman emphasizes the critical distinction as he connects self-esteem to childhood depression in his 1995 book, The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience.
“Armies of American teachers, along with American parents, are straining to bolster children’s self-esteem,” he says. “That sounds innocuous enough, but the way they do it often erodes children’s sense of worth. By emphasizing how a child feels, at the expense of what the child does—mastery, persistence, overcoming frustration and boredom, and meeting challenge—parents and teachers are making this generation of children more vulnerable to depression.”
How could it be that well-meaning attempts to shield children from feeling bad could actually result in more depression rather than less? “Every subfailure, as well as every big failure, produces bad feeling—some admixture of anxiety, sadness, and anger,” notes Seligman. “These emotions, when moderate, are galvanizing, but they are also daunting. Your child has one of only two tactics available when he feels bad. He can stay in the situation and act, trying to terminate the emotion by changing the situation. Or he can give up and leave the situation. This tactic also terminates the emotion by removing the situation altogether. The first tactic I call mastery, the second I call learned helplessness.”
This conceptualization of mastery is easily recognizable as another way of expressing the role of agency and self-efficacy described by Guerra and Bradshaw, as well as the “history of successes” and healthy “manner of responding to devaluation” described by Coopersmith. In this context, Seligman’s findings aren’t necessarily shocking, but he perhaps expresses them more clearly: “In order for your child to experience mastery,” he insists, “it is necessary for him to fail, to feel bad, and to try again repeatedly until success occurs. None of these steps can be circumvented. Failure and feeling bad are necessary building blocks for ultimate success and feeling good.”
Taking issue with political claims that poor self-esteem is the cause of such ills as academic failure, drug use, teenage pregnancy and dependence on welfare, Seligman argues that the reverse is actually the truth: poor self-esteem is the result of these ills rather than the cause. “There is no effective technology for teaching feeling good which does not first teach doing well,” he says. “Feelings of self-esteem in particular, and happiness in general, develop as side effects—of mastering challenges, working successfully, overcoming frustration and boredom, and winning. The feeling of self-esteem is a byproduct of doing well.” For Guerra and her colleagues, doing well is expressed in terms of agency and self-efficacy, but they also see these skills as necessary to self-esteem and a positive sense of self.
“Vacuous slogans of the sort ‘I am a special person,’ ‘People like me,’ and ‘My life will get better and better’ may make you feel warm and fuzzy for a moment, but they will not help you to achieve your goals.”
A Parent’s Role
If doing well is so fundamental to self-esteem, how do parents teach the steps that lead there? Seligman offers a great deal of practical advice that spans the developmental continuum, beginning with avoiding swaddling (which, he says, reduces one of children’s earliest opportunities to learn about their ability to affect their environment) and responding promptly to the needs of infants. “Do not let your infant cry and cry when he’s hungry or wet,” he cautions. “One of the most fundamental building blocks is his learning that crying works to bring relief.” This assurance, along with frequent positive and responsive interaction, is the basis for secure attachment between a child and his caregivers.
In addition, Seligman emphasizes, even in early weeks exploration and play are essential to the development of mastery. A child’s safe exploration space should be increasingly expanded to fit his growing potential for mastery and fitted with toys that operate only in response to the child’s actions. Since this is a key characteristic of computers, Seligman notes that this technology is far more beneficial than TV, radio and movies when it comes to building mastery in children.
Of course, opportunities for mastery can be found in almost every activity of the child’s day—including mealtimes, dressing and interactions with others—and these opportunities should be provided within the framework of clear boundaries that define appropriate values, and against the backdrop of relationships that produce a positive emotional atmosphere. Positivity in the form of love, affection and warmth feeds mastery and self-efficacy, because when children feel safe, happy and secure, they reach farther in their exploration; and of course, the more exploration, the more mastery.
But as the research has acknowledged, mastering tasks, reaching one’s aspirations, or living up to one’s goals and values is not always a seamless process, and children’s development of a healthy self-image then depends on how they learn to cope with or overcome failure. Even when parents help them break challenging tasks into small, achievable steps, children will inevitably still encounter obstacles. How do parents help their children overcome them? Neither by cushioning them from failure nor by criticizing their character when they fail, says Seligman. Rather, children learn the necessary coping skills when parents hold them accountable for specific behaviors while also expressing confidence in their ability to change, and offering opportunities to try again—along with the necessary encouragement to do so.
“[Children] listen to how adults criticize them and absorb the style of the criticism as well as the substance,” says Seligman. “If you criticize your child as being lazy, rather than as not trying hard enough today, your child will believe not only that he is lazy, but that his failures come from permanent and unchangeable factors.” Seligman calls for accurate and specific but impermanent assessments of failures, rather than global, exaggerated, permanent blame. Focusing on specific and temporary personal causes is also important when parents talk about their own failures, since children readily acquire the explanatory styles of those around them.
For instance, the wrong approach to criticism would be “You are a bad boy” or “Why don’t you ever do what I ask?” A constructive approach would be “You’ve been teasing your sister too much” or “I asked you to clean your room. Why didn’t you do as I asked?”
Paradoxically, using catastrophic language to explain failures does not teach children to accept responsibility for specific behaviors. “You’re a slob” implies to a child that he or she has a character trait that is unchangeable. “Your room is a mess; please clean it,” on the other hand, places the blame on the child’s own changeable behavior and expresses a clear and specific expectation for change. When change occurs, praise your child; but just as punishment should fit the crime, praise should fit the success. “When a parent rewards a child, say with praise, regardless of what the child does, two dangers loom,” says Seligman. “First, the child may become passive, having learned that praise will come regardless of what he does. . . . Second, the child may have trouble appreciating that he has actually succeeded later on when he really does succeed and Mom praises him sincerely.”
“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.”
But praise is only one of several positive techniques for influencing a child’s behavior, and while both positive and negative techniques can be effective, Coopersmith’s 1967 research found that children with the highest self-esteem tended to have parents who favored positive behavior-modification techniques. Those with low self-esteem tended to have parents who valued negative techniques. Paradoxically, Coopersmith noted that the parents who primarily preferred to use negative techniques were also those who were more permissive, displaying simultaneously a “lack of parental guidance and relatively harsh and disrespectful treatment. These parents either do not know or do not care to establish and enforce guidelines for their children. They are apt to employ punishment rather than reward, and the procedures they do employ lay stress on force and loss of love. . . . They propose that punishment is a preferred method of control, yet state that they find it generally ineffective.”
It is hardly likely that parenting mistakes such as these have become extinct since Coopersmith’s research was published. With almost 80,000 American children between the ages of 12 and 18 incarcerated in juvenile facilities in 2006, according to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and with England and Wales reporting a 795 percent increase in the population of children in custody between 1989 and 2009, it is clear that parenting in at least some Western nations may not yet be an exact science.
The Essence of Self-Esteem
If, as Guerra and Bradshaw assert, a positive sense of self is a crucial marker of healthy adolescent development, what can parents take away from the preceding century’s study of self-esteem?
The answer seems deceptively simple. Children need distinct values and aspirations to measure success against; they need opportunities to explore and master new tasks; they need the ability to overcome failure and disappointment. And they need all of this in the context of healthy attachment to supportive caregivers who are concerned enough to set clear limits and boundaries that define acceptable behavior.
Unlike the claims often made by popular parenting books, the research behind these concepts is neither new nor shocking. But the fact that it has stood the test of time weighs heavily in its favor.