Nurturing Resilience

Raising children to be competent and caring.

Back to School? You Can't Buy Your Child Self-Esteem at the Mall

A child shouldn't think “I am what I can buy.”

The first day of school is quickly approaching and, if you're like most parents, you are going to take your child to the mall and, if you can afford to do it, buy her (or him) the latest fashions, worried that she won't fit in. But be careful, being nice to your child may not be good for the child's psychological development. In fact, encouraging your child to think "I am what I can buy" may hurt your child and undermine her ability to develop real self-esteem.

We've known for some time now that children who hit the occasional difficulty in life do better when they have a sense of internality. That means they attribute the power to influence their world to themselves. They think, "This, I can change." A child who is more at risk, for everything from early sexual promiscuity to drug abuse and delinquency, has a sense of externality. She expects her life to be shaped by others. She thinks, "Others will make me feel good about myself."

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Which brings me back to the clothing. If you want to teach your child to be a superficial being that is completely dependent on others (peers, marketers, even parents) to tell them they have self-worth, then go for it. Buy them every latest hot new fashion you can find. Dress them up like their favourite rock star, and spend a small fortune on padding their fragile self-esteem. But have no illusion this is good for your child. It may make us parents feel more secure, like we're protecting our children from name calling, but it won't help our kids grow up to feel good about themselves inside.

Instead, try to find a balance. Families I work with who navigate these treacherous waters successfully offer to buy their child one special outfit. Something the child can proudly wear and yes, fit in. If the child wants more than one outfit, then let her buy it herself, or at the very least earn the money necessary to pay the difference between a relatively plain pair of jeans available at the big box store and the pair with the fancy label and marketing campaign. In other words, even if your child chooses to purchase for herself (and hopefully work for the money required to do so) the more expensive brands, she will be developing the self-esteem that comes with supporting herself financially, making her own decisions, and knowing that when she is walking around school looking good, that she put herself there! That's the basis for internality and one of the foundation stones for lifelong resilience.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a family therapist, a researcher at Dalhousie University, and the author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.

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