Human worth in our society is carefully reserved for those who meet certain rigid specifications. The beautiful people are born with it; those who are highly intelligent are likely to find approval; superstar athletes are usually respected. But no one is considered valuable just because he is! Social acceptability is awarded rather carefully, making certain to exclude those who are unqualified.
Believe it or not, a 5-year-old is capable of “feeling” his own lack of worth in this system. Most of our little ones have observed very early that some people are valuable and some aren’t they also know when they are one of the losers! In many ways, we parents inadvertently teach this system to them, beginning in infancy to place a price tag on human worth. The result is widespread inferiority and inadequacy–which has probably included you and me in its toll.
There is a better way! This booklet is intended to help parents and teachers raise self-confident, healthy kids. On the following pages, you’ll find answers to questions parents frequently ask about children and self-esteem.
1) The children in our neighborhood are so brutal to each other. They ridicule and name call and fight from morning to night. Is there anything that we, as parents, can do about this?
There certainly is, and I have some strong opinions on that subject. One of the reasons children are so mean is because they have not been taught to appreciate the feelings of others. How foolish of us to think that little people cannot learn to empathize–to be kind and gentle with one another. They are by nature more soft and tender than we adults, and it is our job to teach them the impact of ridicule. This is accomplished by reminding the child of his own hurt feelings, letting him know that others can be hurt the same way. It can be taught by a warm, accepting attitude of the parent toward a less admirable child in the neighborhood.
This message is particularly relevant for schoolteachers. So much can be done by a skilled teacher to help students learn to respect each other. Young people adopt their teachers’ attitudes very quickly, setting the tone for the entire year. If Mrs. Brown is sarcastic and vindictive with those who don’t understand or those who make honest mistakes, her 34 students will usually follow suit. But if she is patient and kind–complimenting the work of the slower child–“covering” for the student who said something foolish–the atmosphere between children also becomes warmer and more tolerant. I found it useful to tell my students at the start of each year that I would not permit anyone to make fun of another boy or girl in my room. We were going to work together as a team–as a family–in a spirit of cooperation. I then set out to give my respect to the least respectable child in the room. By taking the side of the reject–that friendless little fellow who was the object of scorn–everyone in the class felt more comfortable.
How can parents in a neighborhood bring about a more peaceful atmosphere among their children? They must have the maturity to talk to each other, and that takes some doing! There is no quicker way to anger one mamma than for another woman to criticize her precious cub. It is a delicate subject, indeed. Thus, the typical neighborhood provides little “feedback” to parents in regard to the behavior of their children. The children know there are no lines of communication between adults and they take advantage of the barrier. What each block needs is a mother who has the courage to say, “I want to be told what my child does when he is beyond his own yard. If he is a brat with other children, I would like to know it. If he is disrespectful to adults, please mention it to me. I will not consider it tattling and I won’t resent your coming to me. I hope I can share my insights regarding your children, too. None of our children is perfect, and we’ll know better how to teach them if we can talk openly to each other as adults.”
In summary, children are capable of learning social skills very early in life, and it is our task to make them “feel” for others.
2) What can I say to my 8-year-old when he comes home after being “mauled” emotionally? Should I pity him, or tell him to “take it like a man”?
When your child has been rejected in this manner, he is badly in need of a friend–and you are elected. Let him talk. Don’t try to tell him that it doesn’t hurt or that it’s silly to be so sensitive. Ask him if he knows what it is that his “friends” don’t like. (He may be causing their reaction by dominance, selfishness or dishonesty.) Be understanding and sympathetic without weeping in mutual despair. As soon as appropriate, involve yourself with him in a game or some other activity he will enjoy. And finally, set about resolving the underlying cause.
I would suggest that you ask your child to invite one of his school friends to go to the zoo on Saturday (or offer other attractive “bait”) and then spend the night at your house. Genuine friendship often grows from such beginnings. Even the hostile children on the block may be more kind when only one of them is invited at a time. Not only can you help your child make friends in this way, but you can also observe the social mistakes he is making to drive them away. The information you gain can later be used to help him improve his relationship with others.
3) My 10-year-old daughter hates to have her hair in a pigtail because her friends don’t wear theirs that way. I have always loved pigtails, ever since I was a little girl. Am I wrong to make her please me by wearing her hair the way I want it?
Yes, particularly if your daughter feels unnecessarily different and foolish with her friends. Social pressure on the nonconformist is severe, and you should not place your daughter in this uncomfortable position. Closeness between generations comes from the child’s knowledge that his parent understands and appreciates his feelings. Your inflexibility on this point reveals a lack of empathy and may bring late resentment.
4) My older child is a great student and earns straight A’s year after year. Her younger sister, now in the sixth grade, is completely bored in school and won’t even try. The frustrating thing is that the younger girl is probably brighter than her older sister. Why would she refuse to apply her ability like this?
There could be many reasons for her academic disinterest, but let me suggest the most probable explanation. Children will often refuse to compete when they think they are likely to place second instead of first. Therefore, a younger child may diligently avoid challenging an older sibling in his area of greatest strength. If Son Number One is a great athlete, then Son Number Two may be more interested in collecting butterflies. If Daughter Number One is a disciplined pianist, then Daughter Number Two may be a boy-crazy goof-off.
This rule does not always hold, of course depending on the child’s fear of failure and the way he estimates his chances of successful competition. If his confidence is high, he may blatantly wade into the territory owned by big brother, determined to do even better. However, the more typical response is to seek new areas of compensation which are not yet dominated by a family superstar.
If this explanation fits the behavior of your younger daughter, then it would be wise to accept something less than perfection from her school performance. Every child need not fit the same mold-nor can we force them to do so.
5) What happens when a child is so different from the group that he cannot compete, no matter how hard he tries?
That dead-end street is most often responsible for attempts at self-destruction. I am reminded of a sad little girl named Lily, an eighth-grader who was referred to me for psychological counseling. She opened the door to my office and stood with eyes cast down. Underneath several layers of powder and makeup, her face was completely aglow with infected acne. Lily had done her best to bury the inflammation, but she had not been successful. She weighed about 85 pounds and was a physical wreck from head to toe. She sat down without raising her eyes to mine, lacking the confidence to face me. I didn’t need to ask what was troubling her. Life had dealt her a devastating blow, and she was bitter, angry, broken and deeply hurt. The teenager who reaches this point of despair can see no tomorrow. He has no hope. He can’t think of anything else. He knows he is repulsive and disgusting. He would like to crawl in a hole, but there is no place to hide. Running away won’t help, nor will crying change anything. Too often he chooses suicide as the only way out.
Lily gave me little time to work. The following morning she staggered into the school office and announced that she had swallowed everything in the family medicine cabinet. We labored feverishly to retrieve the medication and finally succeeded on the way to the hospital. Lily survived physically, but her self-esteem and confidence had died years earlier. The scars on her sad face symbolized the wounds on her adolescent heart.
The incidence of suicide is increasing rapidly among American teenagers. Recent statistics show the number of suicides in some cities has doubled annually for the last few years. Among students 19 and younger, suicide is now believed to be the third most common cause of death. Studies of these unfortunate children show that they tend to be friendless loners who have been rejected and isolated by their peers. In other words, they have found it impossible to compete successfully in our highly competitive adolescent society. The following statement was taken from the Los Angeles Times, May 25, 1971, quoting Dr. Paul Popenoe and others:
Lack of friendship, lack of feelings of acceptance, (and) lack of wholesome social life, represent serious problems for high school and college students at all levels. Some studies have Shown that 50 percent of the entire student body has no meaningful social life either inside or outside of the school.
Usually, of course, this results in lack of enjoyment of their school life and such students tend to dislike the college they attend. Not merely may their future be permanently handicapped, but more and more the outcome is suicide–now the most common cause of death on a university campus with the exception of automobile accidents, and competent opinion holds that at least half of these accidents are actually suicide. Reported the National Institute of Mental Health, “Of all the attributes associated with suicidal behavior, human isolation and withdrawal appears to distinguish those who kill themselves from those who will not.”
A scientist who studied the death of schoolchildren in New Jersey found that “in every case of suicide, the child had no close friends with whom he might share confidences or from whom he received psychological support.”
Obviously, the inability to gain social acceptance is not merely an uncomfortable feeling among the young; such lack of self-esteem can actually extinguish the desire to go on living. Parents and teachers must be taught to recognize the early symptoms of personal despair during the tender, pliable years of childhood, and most importantly, what they can do about it.
6) My 15-year-old is a nature-lover through and through. His room is filled with caged snakes, wasp nests, plants and insects. Even the garage is occupied by various animals he has caught and tamed. I hate all this stinky stuff and want him to get interested in something else. What should I do?
If he keeps his zoo clean and well managed, then you should let him follow his interests. Just remember that at 15, “bugs” beat “drugs” as a hobby!
7) My son is an outstanding gymnast. His high school coach says he has more natural ability than anyone he’s ever seen. Yet when he is being judged in a competitive meet, he does terribly! Why does he fall during the most important moments?
If your son thinks of himself as a failure, his performance will probably match his low self-image when the chips are down. In the same way, there are many excellent golfers in the PGA tour who make a satisfactory living in tournament play, but they never win. They consistently place second, third, sixth or 10th. Whenever it looks like they might come in first, they “choke” at the last minute and let someone else win. It is not that they want to fail; rather, they don’t “see” themselves as winners and their performance merely reflects this image.
I talked recently with a concert pianist of outstanding talent who has resolved never to play in public again. She knows she is blessed with remarkable ability, but believes she is a loser:.. every other regard. Consequently, when she plays the piano on stage, her mistakes and errors make her sound like a beginner. Each time the mortifying experience has occurred, she has become more convinced of her own unworthiness in every area. She has now withdrawn into the secluded, quiet talentless world of the have-nots.
There is no question about it; a lack of self-confidence can completely immobilize a talented person, simply through the threat of failure.
8) Is this true of mental ability too? My 12-year old was asked to recite a poem at a school function the other day, and he went completely blank in front of the crowd. I know he knew the poem perfectly because he said it dozens of times at home. He’s a bright child, but he’s had this trouble before. Why does his mind “turn off” when he’s under pressure?
It will be helpful to understand an important characteristic of intellectual functioning. Your son’s self-confidence, or lack of it, actually affects the way his brain operates. All of us have experienced the frustration of mental “blocking,” which you described. This occurs when a name or fact or idea just won’t surface to the conscious mind, even though we know it is recorded in the memory. Or suppose we are about to speak to an antagonistic group and our mind suddenly goes blank. This kind of blocking usually occurs 1) when social pressure is great, and 2) when self-confidence is low. Why? Because emotions affect the efficiency of the human brain. Unlike a computer, our mental apparatus only functions properly when a delicate biochemical balance exists between the neural cells. This substance makes it possible for a cell to “fire” its electrochemical charge across the gap (synapse) to another cell. It is now known that a sudden emotional reaction can instantly change the nature of that biochemistry, blocking the impulse. This blockage prevents the electrical charge from being relayed and the thought is never generated. This mechanism has profound implications for human behavior; for example, a child who feels inferior and intellectually inadequate often does not even make use of the mental power with which he has been endowed. His lack of confidence produces a disrupting mental interference, and the two go around and around in an endless cycle of defeat. This is obviously what happened to your son when he “forgot” the poem.
9) What can I do to help him?
Actually, it is not unusual for a 12-year-old to “choke” in front of a crowd. I once stood before 300 fellow teenagers with-my words stuck in my throat and my mind totally out to lunch. It was a painful experience, but time gradually erased its impact. As your child matures, he will probably overcome the problem, if he can experience a few successes to build his confidence. Anything that raises self-esteem
will reduce the frequency of mental blocking for children and adults alike.
10) My 13-year-old daughter is still built like a boy, but she is insisting that her mother buy her a bra. Believe me, she has no need for it, and the only reason she wants to wear one is because most of her friends do. Should I give in?
Your straight and narrow daughter needs a bra to be like her friends, to compete, to avoid ridicule, and to feel like a woman. Those are excellent reasons. Your wife should meet this request by tomorrow morning, if not sooner.
11) I agree with you that a child’s worth as a human being should not be based on “beauty and brains.” Nevertheless, my daughter lives in a world that values those attributes and she is very sensitive about some of her flaws. Should I encourage her to be as attractive as possible, and to excel in school, or should I minimize the importance of those “false values” at home?
There are no “scientific” answers to those questions. I can only give you my considered opinion in reply. Despite the injustice of this system, my child will not be the one to change it. I am obligated to help him compete in this world as best he can. If his ears protrude, I will have them flattened. If his teeth are crooked, I will see that they are straightened. If he flounders academically, I will seek tutorial assistance to pull him out. He and I are allies in his fight for survival, and I will not turn a deaf ear to his needs. Rick Barry, the great professional basketball star, is a handsome 6’7″ specimen of health and confidence. Yet as a child he was humiliated and self-conscious about his teeth, even causing him to talk with his hand over his mouth. As he described in the book, Confessions of a Basketball Gypsy:
When my second teeth came in, they came in crooked and two of them were missing in front. Maybe my folks could not afford to have them fixed, or maybe having teeth fixed was not then what it is now. I remember talking to Dad about putting in false teeth in front and wearing braces, which might cut my gums when I exerted myself playing ball. Anyway, I did not have my teeth fixed until I was in college. I was very sensitive about my teeth. I was ashamed to look at myself in the mirror. I used to keep my mouth shut and I’d never smile. I used to keep my hand over my mouth, which muffled my voice and made it hard for people to understand me. I developed this habit of keeping my hand over my mouth, just sort of always resting on my chin, and I couldn’t shake it for years afterward.
What similar discomfort is your child experiencing in silence, today? Isn’t it our obligation, within the limits of financial resources, to eradicate the flaws that generate the greatest sensitivity? I believe it is, and the job should be done early. Dr. Edward Podolsky, assistant supervisory psychiatrist, Kings County Hospital, New York City, believes physical deformities should be corrected before the child enters first grade. After that time, his peers will begin to do their “thing” to his personal esteem.
But we parents must walk a tightrope at this point. While I am helping my child to compete in the world as it is, I must also teach him that its values are temporal and unworthy. Explaining the two contradictory sides of that coin requires considerable skill and tact. How can I urge my daughter to fix her hair neatly and then tell her, “Beauty doesn’t matter” 7 The key is to begin very early to instruct the child on the true values of life: love for all mankind, kindness, integrity, trustworthiness, truthfulness, devotion to God, etc. Physical attractiveness is then described as part of a social game we must play. Since the world is our ballpark, we cannot completely ignore the rules of the game. But whether we hit a home run or strike out, we can take comfort in knowing that baseball, itself, is not that important. Herein lies an anchor that can hold a child steady.