My Thoughts On Teaching Self-Esteem (and the live school program)
It is important to differentiate from healthy, long lasting self-esteem and a mere temporary sense of self worth.
Unfortunately there are times when a high self esteem (sense of self worth) is merely the result of positive circumstances. For instance, we all know that it is important to encourage a child and tell him or her how valuable they are. Imagine a scenario where a child is learning to play tee ball. He or she may struggle with hitting the ball, but we encourage and prod them to constantly do better. When they fail or perform poorly we should encourage them, to not feel like failures, but to instead work hard and try again. This is hardly a groundbreaking or novel idea. As good parents, insightful teachers, and responsible adults we know that it is best to encourage those who struggle and to congratulate those who do well. Positive reinforcement. Of course.
But the problem occurs when self esteem is ever wholly derived from outside stimuli. Undoubtedly our example child in this scenario may still feel a certain sense of deflated self worth when they continually struggle with hitting the ball. But when he or she is successful and finally hits the ball, or even gets VERY good at playing ball, we must be careful to not impress the child with the idea that their accomplishments are the source of their sense of self worth. In other words, being good at something should not be the reason one ever feels a sense of value. We must encourage our young ones to hold themselves in high regard by virtue of simply BEING, and not as a result BEING GOOD at external things.
When I speak to older youth I ask them “who are you?”
“Tommy Garrison” might be the typical answer. Of course. Your name. But your name is not who you are. I continue, “well, that may be your name, but if your parents named you “Schlommy Phlareson” you may have a funny name, but you would still be you. Your guts, your brains, your you would still be you. So, who are you?”
“I am… a basketball player”
Of course, this is merely a favorite activity, and does not sum up the person. The questions and answers go on and on, but suffice to say, no matter what age you are, your definition of self is often defined by things that simply shouldn’t be defining. This is inherently the reason why so many people struggle with self-value. Their value comes from things that can be taken away. I go on to pose the question to teenagers, “What if suddenly you lost the use of your left leg? Would you still be YOU? You couldn’t very well play basketball… but would you cease to be you?” Sadly, the answer is often, “Yes.” At least, at first.
We cannot impress upon young people that their personal value is based on their abilities. Just as our American society has only recently begun to wake up to the fact that skin color does not define a person’s value, we must impress that no external thing defines a person.
After continual explanation on what defines a person the average teen can reach an “a-ha” experience in regards to a healthy sense of “self.” Many can and will find some sort of peace in the fact that their abilities, likes, dislikes, inabilities, struggles, failures and successes do not sum up themselves in entirety. But it is hard, and its probably because of early childhood, prepubescent and “tween” programming that occurs socially in and outside of their own homes.
So, what about our children?
When I address children I make sure they understand that each person is special. If you have seen “The Incredibles” the mom character tells her superhero son that “Everyone is special.” He immediately counters her statement with pitch perfect adult logic: “Pff. That’s the same as saying nobody is special.” Kids aren’t dumb. He’s right. But, so is she. The phrase merely needs to be reworded. Everyone is special, but each in their own different way. I stress to children that we mustn’t judge people by what they are good or bad at, or the way they look, etc, etc. We shouldn’t be quick to judge because everyone has something special, deep down inside. That special thing is not always spotted right away. Sometimes we need to get to know someone before we recognize that they are special.
But the lesson CAN NOT stop there. No, to suggest to a young person that they must find that “special” thing about them, the thing that sets them apart, the thing that they are good at, the thing that makes them distinct…. to set a child on that journey can end horribly. Because, in the end, we are only re-enforcing that external things make us valuable. No, we have to change our statement from “You are special because…” to “You are special. Period.”
We must walk the line where on one side we say “Your success makes me happy.” and on the other says “you need not succeed in order to make me happy.” Because we, as a generation raising another, must encourage children to succeed, while letting failure be alright, without suggesting that we do not expect our young people to try their hardest to succeed. But we MUST walk that balance.
That is a difficult balance. I will reiterate: On one hand we must be able to communicate that a child’s success is important and desirable. On the other hand, we must communicate that a child’s failure does not change our opinion of them, nor should it make them feel less valuable. Yet, and most importantly, we cannot suggest that we do not expect our young people to try their hardest to succeed and/or reach their fullest potential.
Rewarding failure isn’t the way to do it. Eliminating winners and losers is not an acceptable method either. Instead, we must separate the healthy agony of defeat from a unhealthy self view that potentially comes from defeat. In the same way, we mustn’t allow a strong sense of self worth to be solely the result of success. Success should be the fruit of self worth, not the reverse.
We have all seen movies where an abusive and angry father figure pushes his son into football. The father was the star athlete in high school and “would have made it into pro-ball if….” Clearly the father attributed a sense of self worth to success in a particular sport. A fragile ego that hinges on a narrow definition of success can have disastrous results.
In my school programs I teach young people:
1. Do not judge people by the outside, everyone has something special inside.
2. Everyone is unique and has different abilities.
3. If you truly believe you are special, then you must believe that the person next to you, ALSO is equally valuable.
4. If you do not know what it is that makes you special, that is OK, you simply ARE special.
5. Being special means you are important, valuable, and unique.
Each of these are fleshed out by visual and interesting examples, but most importantly those young people who feel outcast, disenfranchised, or lonely can relate to the message. By exposing myself as being unusual, weird, and particularly untalented at a lot of things that are very popular to young people, I am happily able to connect to the hearts and minds of those who might feel alienated.