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Developing Self-Esteem

Does praise really do it?

We have been brainwashed into believing that Self-esteem is something that others either give us or take from us. Teachers all around the world see it as their mission to give children Self-esteem. All praise should be given to them for their efforts to praise children in the hopes that children will come to see themselves in the light of that praise. But praise, unfortunately does not give children Self-esteem. In fact, we may be inadvertently enabling a continuation of a people-pleaser or other identity with our praise. Children may learn from this how to get praise or applause, but they don’t necessarily learn anything about who they are.

What we can do, however, and what does allow a child to begin to develop Self-esteem is mirroring. We can mirror them. So, for example, if little Mary draws a picture, what we typically do is attempt to praise Mary, telling her how good her work is, perhaps guessing at what she has drawn and giving her a hug. That’s praise. Mary may learn from this how to get more praise. But if, instead, we say to Mary, “I saw you over there working so hard on your picture” what we have first done is see Mary. Now Mary has seen herself in the mirror we just held up. Then we can add, “Tell me about your picture!” What we are doing there is allowing Mary to see herself through her own description of her work. And if we can follow-up on that by seeing what she describes and telling her that we do, we have just mirrored Mary. Not just her work, but Mary. Mary now knows herself more certainly.

Andrea Mathews
Source: Andrea Mathews

Children long to be seen for exactly who they are, so that they can grow more truly into who they are. What we tend to do, instead, however, is we tend to try to mold them into the people that we think they ought to be. We are afraid that if the child is not molded into who she ought to be, she will grow up to be a terrible person. That is because most of us have an almost biologically imprinted programing that says that if people are not led to a certain agreed upon truth, they will definitely become bad people. What this implies is that we are inherently bad, and most be focused on goodness (in whatever way the parents see goodness) in order to turn out to be good people.

Thus, our praise is an attempt to mold them, perhaps even manipulate them into being good people. But that is not mirroring, which allows a person to grow into his own authenticity. And the truth is that in order to have Self-esteem we have to have a Self to esteem. If all we have is all the ways we have learned how to get praise, we still have not uncovered a Self. Mirroring allows a child to see her Self, and as she begins to really see that Self, it is only natural for her to begin to treat it with the same mirroring she has received from others. She will allow herself to look in the mirror to find her own authentic goals, dreams, efforts, initiatives and begin to live them out.

What we fear is that a child who is mirrored is never disciplined. But it’s not that black and white. It is possible to mirror a child as discipline. So, little Johnny hits little Billy over the head with a plastic toy truck because he is mad. What we can do with that is teach Johnny empathy for Billy. With our face fully reflecting our feelings of “OUCH” we can look at Johnny right in the eyes and say, “Oh my goodness that really hurt Billy!” If Billy is crying we can go and comfort Billy, and say, “What you just did really hurt Billy!” We can ask Johnny to imagine how Billy is feeling right now, and challenge him to express that. We can also say that if Johnny is going to hit anyone again, he cannot play in the playground right now. All of these things teach Johnny that his behavior was harmful to someone else, and that there is a cultural expectation that that behavior be extinguished. But what it also potentiates is Johnny’s empathy. Johnny learns that what he does can have an impact on other people and that he gets to choose what kind of impact he will have.

We don’t have to mold our children to make sure that they are good people. In fact, it is this very parenting style that has, over the centuries taught so many of us to shame. We learn to shame ourselves and shame others for not being good enough, instead of learning how to be authentic and encourage the authenticity of others. Further, this molding only discourages the development of an authentic Self—thus discouraging the development of Self-esteem.