When I first began to teach parenting skills, I named the curriculum I was creating, Self-Esteem Programs. I learned very quickly that using that title was a mistake! It turned out that using the words “Self-Esteem” caused more problems than it was worth. The biggest problem it created was that people had so many different definitions, connotations, misconceptions, and preconceived ideas of what was meant by the simple terms of self-esteem, self-image, self-concept, and self-worth that I was saddled, more often than not, with the task of defining and clarifying terms than with teaching some effective parenting skills. Not only did I have to redefine the terms, but I also had to overcome many common and negative emotional reactions to those words. Many thought I meant total permissiveness. Many thought I meant that parents ought to try to alter outcomes for children so their children never experienced disappointment. Many thought I meant that we must stop evaluating the performance of children and just throw “atta boys” at them instead.
In particular, there were large numbers of parents who held negative thoughts and misconceptions of what was meant by the term self-esteem. The minute I used the term, so many parents believed I was a person who advocated being soft, permissive, or undemanding with children. That is the furthest thing from the truth, but once they formed that opinion of me it was difficult for them to even hear the parenting information.
So, from the very early days of developing our Parenting with Dignity program, I simply stopped using those words. I have found other ways and other words to convey the critical concepts to parents. It has worked very well because I seldom have anyone forming opinions of my parenting information before they have heard it!
Right now please avoid jumping to any conclusions based upon your preconceived ideas of the intended meaning of those volatile words. Please read on.
Self Esteem and Accomplishment
Since my very first days of working with children, it has been my belief that way too many people associated self-esteem with accomplishment or performance. All too many parents seemed to believe that they could alter their children’s self-esteem by altering or creating artificial outcomes for them. In other words, many parents and educators seemed to believe that they could protect or build self-esteem by taking down scoreboards and using codes instead of letter grades or percentage scores for grading student work. Some even mistakenly thought that it meant that no students would ever fail a subject in school. Their opinion seemed to be that if they could alter the outcomes for kids, then they could help all kids to have positive self-esteem! My experience in teaching taught me something very different.
What I was observing in my classroom was that some of the most self-assured and self-confident kids often were those who were not academically accomplishing at a particularly high level. On the contrary, some of my students who were doing the most extraordinary academic work were those who seemed to have the toughest time thinking well of themselves. As a matter of fact, often it seemed that over-achieving kids were driven to achieve by a low self-esteem!
It seemed that kids with a healthy self-esteem were able to “feel good about themselves” in spite of their achievement and kids with bad feelings about themselves could not achieve enough to right the ship and “feel good about themselves.”
This phenomenon seemed to hold true with adults as well. Many adults seemed to be on a fruitless chase for the better job, the better house, the better car, the next promotion as if grasping the next “better” acquisition would finally create inner happiness… but it never seemed to be enough!
On the other hand, as I met more and more adults in my professional and private life, lots of them seemed to live happy and fulfilled lives with few notable accomplishments and little in the way of material wealth. Their sense of self-worth seemed to be tied to something more internal than external.
As I searched for an explanation for my puzzling observations, I also realized that there were many people with both great accomplishments and great material wealth who were very satisfied with their lives and who seemed to hold a high regard for their own self-worth.
Further searching found that just as many people who had not accomplished much nor amassed much of anything in the way of material wealth were unhappy and held a debilitating and low sense of self-esteem.
Self-esteem seemed to somehow NOT be connected to accomplishment! People seemed to be able to form their self–concept, either positiveor negative, independent of accomplishment, material wealth, and level of performance.
The question then became, “Well, what is it that creates or forms a person’s self-image?” There had to be something that shaped a person’s sense of self-value. This search led to the formation of Rule #4 in our Parenting with Dignity program. “It doesn’t matter what you say, it is what they say to themselves that counts!” The key ingredient in what a child feels or thinks about him/herself is what they say to themselves about themselves!
Further study led me to deduce that the key ingredient in a child being able to think well of self was LOVE... unconditional love! Children, who were confirmed in the belief that they were loved unconditionally, were children who were able to think well of themselves, almost totally independent of accomplishment or material wealth. That led to the formation of Rule #5 in our curriculum, which is, “Send them a constant and continual message of unconditional love!” Anyone who has heard me speak on this topic will know that I feel our Rule #5 is the most powerful tool available to parents in their search for ways to raise independent, self-fulfilled, and self-reliant children.
It became quite evident to me that self-esteem is not very closely connected to accomplishment or performance. During my the recent part of my investigation, I have found that what I have believed for so long, seems to stand up to scientific study! Research is now showing that self-concept is made of one third performance or accomplishment and two-thirds from unconditional love! I do nt believe that it is anywhere near that precisely measurable.
What does this say to us as parents?
It says the same thing I have been saying for years! (And believe even more strongly today... ) "The effective parent is NOT the one who insures successful performance or accomplishment for their children! The effective parent is the one who provides a constant dose of unconditional love! It echoes precisely what is repeatedly expressed in our Parenting with Dignity program… "the most effective tool at the disposal of parents lies in their ability to express love to their children!"
To parents of young athletes it says, “Your kids are going to have lots of coaches, but you are the only parents they will ever have. Let the coaches coach and you be the parent who is constantly there to offer the unconditional love; in spite of the score.”
To parents of students it says, “Your kids are going to have lots of teachers. Let the teachers teach! Be there to support the teachers in every way that you can; but above all, be there with constant doses of love in spite of the level of the child’s achievement.”
Love does not mean permissiveness! Love does set boundaries. Love can be expressed in holding high expectations. But, above all, it must be unconditional and not tied to performance. Children must have families and homes that serve them as an arena in which to practice skills, attitudes and performance. The key is, they are practicing. Some times they will reach the pinnacle of their own expectations, or even the expectations of parents. Sometimes they will fall short, and perhaps even fall very short. They will be disappointed without parents heaping on their disappointment too. What they need to know, always, is that their parents love them through success AND disappointment and are always on their team to teach them how to turn a disappointing behavior, grade, or score into something more positive.
Love is not just a word you say; it is something that you do! You can fake like you care but you can’t fake being there. Love is a participation sport!
And remember the time you feel least able to tell kids that you love them is usually the precise moment their hearts are most open to receive your message of unconditional love!
Express your constant and unconditional love for your children.