“Hey, Suzanne,” said the 7-year-old whose sibling had been invited to my daughter’s party and was accompanying his mom to pick her up.
“Got anything to eat? I’m hungry.”
“Well there’s the leftover pizza from the party. Want me to help you get a slice?"
“Nah. Don’t like pepperoni. I wish you had the Hawaiian.”
I was about to forage in my refrigerator for something that might tantalize when I stopped myself: What was I doing catering to this child whom I barely knew, but was apparently comfortable enough to approach me as a peer and ask for food without a “please” or “thank you.”
His twin sister was equally cocksure. “I heard your team won at soccer today,” I had told her during the party.
“Yeah, I scored the winning goal. You can come and watch me play next weekend if you want. I’m the star on the team.”
Later I commented to their mother that her children were remarkably confident. “Thank you,” she said with a dazzle. “Self-esteem in kids is so important.”
Is self-esteem in kids so important? If you Google “self-esteem” and “children” there are approximately 38 million hits, vs. 17 million if you substitute children for adults.
Personally, I’m so over our parental obsession with childhood self-esteem. I should clarify that I don’t take a “seen-not-heard” approach to kids: I think they need our unconditional love and that they blossom when they are held and hugged, listened to, promptly comforted and yes, praised frequently and generously. That is their birthright.
With that sensitive nurturing during the first years of a child’s life, a quiet confidence is more likely to emerge; a solid sense of self-worth that will (hopefully) enable them to confide in us about the bully at school, the malicious comment from a classmate or the unreasonable teacher. It will mean they’re more inclined to yell “NO” if they’re being coerced into an unwelcome physical encounter or a dangerous deed; and it will shield them when they fail and give them the gumption to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and try again.
What’s wrong with modesty?
But self-esteem shouldn’t translate to a brazen confidence that means it’s OK to state their needs and wants to all and sundry; an expectation that most adults will find them as compelling and charismatic as their parents do; and that reciting their accomplishments without a quiver of self-doubt is a positive reflection of their character.
Having a modest, unassuming demeanor, thinking twice about blowing one’s trumpet and inconveniencing others are attractive traits in adults. I think they are attractive traits in kids, too.
Perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves what we mean when we sing the praises of self-esteem in our children. I seem to be uncomfortable with some parents’ definitions, but I like this one from the Canadian Mental Health Association:
- Having a healthy view of yourself
- Having a quiet sense of self-worth
- Having a positive outlook
- Feeling satisfied with yourself most of the time
- Setting realistic goals
Suzanne Leigh is a freelance health writer, a Huffington Post blogger and a childhood cancer advocate. More importantly, she is the mother of two gorgeous girls. She blogs about her family at The Mourning After Natasha.