If you’re sitting out there wondering how to build your child’s self-esteem, I want to start with a joke. One of George Carlin’s more endearing moments, language aside, was when he made fun of the parental obsession of refusing to look reality in the face and say those all-important character-building words to your children, along the lines of “Hey Timmy, you’re the last winner!”
Praise real achievement.
Self-esteem building is all well and good, but Carlin brings up an important point, namely that we can’t all win at everything. A key component of boosting your child’s self-esteem is giving them a realistic assessment of what they’re good at and giving them opportunities to participate in what they’re good at. A case in point was when I was asked to organize the middle school talent show for my youngest daughter’s grade at the time. She was in eighth grade.
I had visions of myself holding court, sipping tea out of my travel mug, and watching a bunch of varied and entertaining auditions. I saw myself giving the nod of acceptance to some and saying something kind, understanding, and, most of all, incredibly witty to the others, which leads me to a couple more thoughts. What’s happened to wit and sarcasm? And why can’t parents teach their kids to face reality? I mean, these kids weren’t babies or three-year-olds singing horribly off-tune who you just have to love because they’re so cute. These were fourteen-year-olds, kids who were only two years away from driving alone and four years away from voting as full-fledged adult citizens.
How to build your child’s self-esteem: Once upon a time, kids got real report cards.
When I was growing up, “wit” was a clever way of saying something true while also making you laugh. Teachers used to put in time and effort to create the wittiest of comments; some of mine still make me laugh to this day. I remember after about two years of piano, when it was clear I had absolutely no talent at all, my piano teacher wrote on my report card, “Anna has progressed as far in the piano as she ever will.” And you know what? It was true.
If you did that now, most parents would be up in arms, saying the teacher had ruined my self-esteem and that my career as a world-famous concert pianist had been crushed before it had even started. Yet it’s worth asking, how did he affect my later interaction with music? Did he put me off trying? Did he ruin my appreciation of all things musical? Did he crush my self-esteem? Nope, not even close. I love music, and when it comes to the piano, I hope to have some time soon to give it another try. Who knows, I might have a shot at playing half decently in a few years—not that you should go out and buy those concert tickets just yet.
But let’s get back to the school talent show. I figured we’d have singers, dancers, actors, musicians, poets and a whole range of talent. I thought it would be fun with happy, talented kids rising to the top like cream on a jug of freshly drawn farm milk.
How to build your child’s self-esteem: Talent should be about…gulp….talent!
Instead, what I got was hour upon hour of kids strangling the cat, vocally speaking. Virtually all the kids wanted to sing, even those who could plainly do other things much better. There were some that were good, and a few more who would have made good choir material, but the large majority were, frankly, awful. After a couple of hours, my ears needed wringing out, and after the second audition, I figured I should swap my tea for a stiff scotch.
I did, though, dutifully mark down those I thought made the grade, only to be told that, wait for it, we couldn’t cut anyone because we’d hurt their self-esteem! I had been planning on cutting anyone who actually wasn’t singing, i.e., using a backing track with singing already on it. After all, this was supposed to be a… “talent show,” but I was overruled on that one too.
So what were we left with? A three and a half-hour show of total, unadulterated, brain-blasting agony, punctuated by a few brief moments of talent At least there was a tray of cakes. If I couldn’t drown my sorrows, I could at least stuff my face.
So in the end, how can you build your child’s self-esteem? Be honest and help them find something they can do. If that’s tough and they don’t seem to be good at much at all, keep trying. They’ll be happy you made the effort to help them discover their true talents. And yes, everyone is good at something. As a parent, you just have to help your child find out what that something is.
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