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Shiney, Happy (Little) People

We all seek happiness in the things we do, and in the lives we lead.

But what is the link between self-esteem and happiness? Brendon Smith looks at the issue, and discovers that parents and children can help each other in the quest for genuine contentness.

The power of self-esteem first hit me when our girl Madeleine turned four. My wife had discovered a palace where all sorts of princess treasure could be found and fairy dreams could be fulfilled.

The same venue hosted Princess Fairy Parties, optionally catered with lollies and cake, featuring glitter and every known shade of pink.

I quickly organised an escape strategy, an arrangement where Dads could avoid hanging around, waiting outside such a place. A new sports bar down the road was selected and all Dads were invited to sit out the duration on the comfort of wooden stools.

When the end time drew near, we gathered our courage and proceeded back down the road. As we approached the decorated old villa, trickle of fairy princesses giggled through the front door and queued behind the big rope swing.

One by one they sat and swayed, only ten or so swings per princess, but each with the biggest smile imaginable, as all the fairy princesses sang:

”You are beautiful,
You are beautiful,
You are beautiful,
You are beautiful,
You are beautiful….”

The fabulous grins and totally uplifting atmosphere was not only a credit to the hosts, it stopped passers-by. Leaning on the front fence, we were all captivated by the positive energy.

I am sure the fairy stories, cream cake and a dream afternoon in this princess fairy heaven had helped, but the proud and willing manner of each of the little princesses made me realise how much more can be achieved when children feel this good about themselves.

Why Self Esteem?

Research confirms that self-esteem has a greater impact on success (and happiness) than intelligence or talent. Good looks, popularity and wealth count for little if the owner lacks self-esteem. Some people actually sabotage their lives due to low self-esteem whereas others become masters at hiding their feelings, achieving certain successes without fully enjoying their lives.

How self-esteem is measured and whether it is the only contributor to success has been widely discussed. Self-esteem can include career and financial components or experiences – emotional, intellectual, creative or spiritual.

Childhood self esteem is said to be critical for educational, emotional and social development.

The importance of accurate assessments and appropriate use of comparisons, along with the teaching of planning, good habits and commitment must never be discounted.

In general, however, the higher our self-esteem, the more ambitious we tend to be and the lower our self-esteem, the less we aspire to. Either path seems to be self-perpetuating and will influence our general outlook and how we react to events throughout our lives.

Comparisons, like labels and judgements, can seem like rejection, while parental conflict or competition for affection may make the child feel less valued and distract their attention from learning or growing. Conflicts or unhealthy communications may also cause insecurity and symptoms of this include inattentiveness, which can be mistaken for academic indifference.

Similar issues are common to children of solo parents or new immigrants who feel left out or unsupported. These children probably know they have special circumstances and need acknowledgement of their situation. Then with a little help they can work normally.

Another important point is for children to understand is that each person has different strengths and weaknesses. This is a tall order in modern society which places so much emphasis on competition, where winning is everything and losing is shameful. Challenges are needed at regular intervals and warnings of danger or occasionally testing rules must be allowed, if reasonable or children may lose the incentive to experiment and try.

Over protection can be just as unproductive, successes or failures are acceptable to children, providing the reaction from adults is encouraging. Effort should be rewarded as much as achievement and punishment or scolding for failure should be minimal. What becomes most important is not the parent’s judgement but the child’s ability to measure their own achievements accurately and to congratulate themselves appropriately.

Accuracy and uniqueness…

Young children often rate their self-esteem by their perceived position in their parents’ and especially their fathers’ value – read favourite – rankings. Because of this, almost every gesture, verbal or facial expression may contribute to whether the child feels loved and capable.

Providing good examples and unconditional love means accepting the child as unique and perfect, restricting comments to specific behaviour, which can be improved or worked on. Encouraging fun and a love of learning is said to be more helpful for emotional growth than expecting or demanding a “good girl” or “nice boy”.

Accurate appraisals and how parents resolve conflicts or communicate needs can be hugely influential. As parents demonstrate reasonable statements of need, listen and communicate clearly with their children, harmony should prevail and the children will learn not to expect any less.

A child admonished over putting their shoes on the wrong feet should always be congratulated first for the great achievement of getting them on, then encouraged to learn the finer points of sides or laces!

Similarly, in our consumer based world children must learn to place an appropriate value on material possessions. Being close to your loved ones, aware of your dreams or simply free to enjoy spontaneity can be excellent attributes.

Small or temporary pleasure type aspirations may need to be openly compared to more absorbing or challenging – read fulfilling – experiences. If positive self-image is the result of one specific act or pleasure, there could be little real gain, artificially boosting self-esteem may actually lower subsequent performance.

Self-esteem should also have minimal regard for comparisons to others. If you compare your achievements with those of other people, the less you may think of yourself. The more people you know might just compound this feeling even more.

Without the ability to objectively judge their own behaviour, children may try hiding or projecting their issues onto others. Some use ridicule and assertiveness or aggression to hide their insecurities. Individuals who become dependent, copy or take on opinions of those from whom they seek approval need to work on their uniqueness.

A certain amount of self-doubt, particularly during adolescence, can be healthy if it leads to a clear understanding or improvement. However, poor self-esteem should never be ignored. It can be a symptom of severe emotional disturbance. Children whose parents are teachers often carry the dilemma of high expectations and severe condemnation of failure. This may lead to strategies of avoidance or over compensation.

Withdrawn or easily upset, shy children may be obvious, requiring constant encouragement, while others may be high achievers dependent on others, not necessarily able to set their own challenges. Whether avoiding their full capabilities or winning but being too harshly criticised, the child’s motivation to learn is probably being undermined.

Measured assistance…

Just as it is important not to be harsh, too few expectations can also be dangerous. Letting a child slide or evade responsibility can equate to not providing enough parental guidance.

One of the best ways to develop self-esteem is to get children to feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for their experiences.

This includes giving them the freedom to make mistakes, finding ways for them to contribute to their learning experience and helping them understand the choices available at each stage.

Children’s issues will progress as they become adolescents, affected by physical and hormonal changes, wonder how they appear to others and whether they feel accepted. Emphasis should be on behaviour, personal nature and genuine acts of friendship.

Also the early teens are a great time to develop individual skills or for camps that help confidence and vision. Such activities or work related outings could also give children crucial windows into career options.

Sport, drama, music or individual and team activities can teach about losing gracefully, i.e., without loss of self-esteem, or possibly how to be a good winner. Team sports add the complexities of having a good game when your team loses, or celebrating a team victory when your part was minor.

Many people send their children along with specific focus on winning, when really they are learning all about life. Parents should provide clear rules along with responsibility and the encouragement of independence. Every task you perform for your child that they could do for themselves deprives them of their right to self-dependence.

Children need to face and respond to struggles and failures. Interrupting with the answers or showing how to solve the problem may remove the sense of having tackled a problem or succeeding by their own means.
When your children are talking, look at them and listen while they are speaking.

Don’t cut them off, finish sentences, endlessly correct them or, safety permitting, continue with other work while they are talking to you.

Endearing terms like “that’s special,” or “what a good job” and “I am impressed”, with specific endorsements like “that’s a wide range of colours” or “you tried really hard” provide excellent, non-comparative praise. Complimenting unsolicited good behaviour, especially for children who are not yours, can stay with a child for life.

Being able to laugh, even at yourself, or make the most of funny situations can show that a sense of humor is important to enjoy life.

Singing songs at times of celebration can help capitalize on special moments and trying not to complain about the cards you are dealt, show that it’s how you react that really counts.

Remember that big lifelong ambitions (and worries) only come after successfully accomplishing a
few little dreams.

And if happiness can be found in the achievement of your most heartfelt dreams, helping our children set their own targets may be the most important thing we should actually do with them. Help them define the key steps and assist with learning new habits.

Tell them to keep their feet on the ground, have faith in their talents and never give up.

Then sit back and wait for the big smiling, happy faces.

Next: Bigger…And Better

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