Teaching Self-Esteem

By Albert S. Rossi, Ph.D.

The eyes are the windows of the soul. I used to tell my Beth, when she was five, that I could look into her beautiful blue eyes and see all the way to eternity. She smiled softly. Perhaps she merely understood that her daddy thought she had beautiful blue eyes, but a seed was planted. Today the seed grows as Beth (now nineteen) and I reflect fondly on those moments and talk more about the eyes as windows into eternityâ??a poetic but valid idea.

Children receive much of their self-image, and consequently their self-esteem, from their parents. We parents have the same awesome power God gave Adam and Eve in naming the kingdom entrusted to them. We choose the names our children will be most known by during their lifetimes.

More important, we also give names to the different parts of our children’s self-image, names that can last a lifetime. We parents define some of our children’s core personality. The children adopt these definitions, these little inner characters, to fit particular situations. If I tell my child she is a grateful child, then she will name herself “grateful.” After a few years my child will have a self-image consisting of many parts, many different inner characteristics. These may be, for example, beautiful, lazy, grateful, sneaky, spoiled, messy, sweet, and moodyâ??all for the same child.

A loving parent will take care never to abuse this power. For example, a parent should never call a child a liar. Even if true, the basic message is that the parent expects this child to be a liar and to lie. The predictable result is more and more lies from their child. Instead, when a child lies, the parent should name the lie, correct the child firmly and emphatically, forgive the child, and then put aside the whole incident. No lectures needed.

While parents have great influence on their children, life is more complex than this. Genetics plays a powerful role in influencing children, as do siblings, TV, extended family, and peers. However, the sheer power of parents over self-image is difficult to overestimate.

My eighth-grade son, Timothy, wants me to name his basketball skill. This gets tricky with an adolescent. As we ride home after every game, his response is often the same. He will say (and think honestly because of his adolescent self-doubt), “Dad, I played lousy tonight.” In the past I took this literally and tried to discreetly point out his flaws on the court. I could tell this upset him. I had confused my role as father of a struggling adolescent with a role that wasn’t mineâ??being his basketball coach.

My son wants me at every game as his proud father, as his ally, as his supporter. I learned this lesson slowly. He wants me to appreciate and to name his effort, his teamwork, his growth, and his achievement honestly. At home I have plenty to criticize and correct. At his games he want me to observe him uncritically. I’ve discovered that there is always something positive and truthful to say, even on the bleakest of nights.

Sometimes I say a variation of the theme: “Son, the ball wasn’t dropping for you tonight, but I could see you were trying hard.” He receives his self-esteem, even as an adolescent, in some part from my naming his behavior.

I should have learned this lesson a long time ago. As a Little League coach for five years, I would cringe when a father criticized his son for his baseball play. I knew the boy was trying hard to hit, catch, or throw the ball accurately. The critical remarks of the father made the body more tense and less likely to play graceful baseball. I’ve had boys cry like babies over bad plays they had made because they felt like a disappointment to themselves and others, particularly to parents and peers.

An important difference between successful and unsuccessful parents is that successful parents keep destructive names and destructive comments to themselves. Successful parents resist the temptation to shoot from the hip. Successful parents do discipline regularly, firmly, and emphatically. They don’t allow misbehavior, but they also don’t erode the child’s self-esteem with negative, stinging names. Successful parents are strong enough to discipline squarely and then find the good, true, and beautiful in their children.

Most of all, successful parents let their children know they are exceedingly desired and desirable.

We parents learn slowly. We need to be persistent, vigilant, and very gentle with ourselves and our children. Our lives are classrooms for learning about God’s persistence, vigilance, and gentleness with us.

Originally published in LIGUORIAN, August 1994, reprinted with permission from LIGUORIAN, One Liguori Drive, Liguori, MO 63057.

Dr. Albert Rossi is a retired psychology professor and teaches pastoral theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, NY.