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Building Self-Esteem by Fostering Individuality

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Another way that parents can encourage their children's healthy self-esteem is by encouraging healthy expressions of individuality. Children begin to crave and to assert their individuality towards the later part of middle childhood. As they do, their ideas about how to become independent are shaped by sometimes conflicting external and internal demands; the conflict between what other people want them to be interested in, and what they themselves find intrinsically interesting. Typically, people's intrinsic interests tend to get drowned out by the press of external voices (from peer pressure, parental demands and marketing) which try to define what people should aspire to and what they should think. In our view, healthy self-esteem depends on a proper balance forming between these inner and outer voices, however. Therefore it is important for parents to help children learn to listen to both parts of the conversation.

Distinguishing Needs from Wants

If left to their own devices it is fairly likely that many children will succumb to media marketing and learn to express their individuality through their acquisition of status objects like clothes, shoes, video games, technological gadgets, and other possessions. Often, children will come to rely on such possessions to make them seem "cool" or accepted by peers, the idea being that they must be valuable, desirable people if they have valuable, desirable things in their possession. This is implicitly a damaging idea, however, as it reinforces the idea that children are not intrinsically valuable; that their own personalities and qualities aren't enough to make and to keep friends. As well, it is an impractical idea, because most families simply cannot afford to buy their children all, or even most of the many things they "just need to have."

Parents can combat children's implicit belief that they are not valuable to others on their own merits by teaching them the difference between "needs" and "wants". A "need" is something necessary to maintain important aspects of one's life, such as health, safety and education. For example, groceries, rent or mortgage payments, heating oil or gas, winter coats, shoes, medications, toothpaste, notebooks, and pencils are all needs. However, while children need shoes and notebooks, they do not necessarily need expensive shoes or notebooks endorsed by the latest sports or singing star. Celebrity endorsed shoes would be examples of "wants", where "wants" are understood to be any other objects that would be fun or enjoyable to have but which are not necessary for the family's basic survival.

Some families struggle just to pay the basic bills that are family "needs" and do not have money left over for their children's "wants." Other families may have enough money for the family's needs and also some of their children's "wants." Both families have opportunities to guide their children to distinguish wants from needs and to determine which "wants" are most important to them, and why. For instance, one child's family may only be able to afford generic tennis sneakers even though the child wants the ones endorsed by a famous basketball player. This may be an important lesson for the child to learn: Dad needs steel-toe boots in order to perform his job safely but famous sneakers have no similar value or importance. In another family, a girl might have to choose between getting an art set and a pair of designer jeans that all her friends are wearing. Assuming that this young lady enjoys art, she might be well advised to choose the art set on the grounds that she will really enjoy the art set and find daily enjoyment in it; whereas the jeans would be more about pleasing her friends and gaining their approval.

It will probably be almost a daily or weekly discussion or struggle to help children differentiate between what they want and what they need. However, parents' determination and firmness to teach this important distinction will, over time, help children learn that the truly important aspects of people are not their possessions, but rather their character. It will also help children to work on building their own character by defining things which are especially important to them, and in the process, strengthen their sense of self and individuality.

Coming to Terms with Gender Roles

Concepts of masculinity and femininity become increasingly important to children's identities during middle childhood. By this time, they will have absorbed cultural stereotypes about how women and men are supposed to act. For example, girls may think that it's important to wear lots of makeup or to wear short skirts in order to get guys' attention because that's what they see women in the media do. Furthermore, boys might think that "real guys" don't cry and need to fight to show their manliness. Some boys and girls will find these roles to be comfortable and won't have difficulty with them. However, others will find them restrictive and a source of unwanted pressure. In either case, parents may want to explore with their children what it means to be male or female and help them to know that it is okay to act in non-traditional ways if that's what they need to do in order to be comfortable in their own skin.

It's important that parents first listen to children's comments and beliefs about being female or male without judgment or ridicule. Only after first listening and understanding their children are they in a position to dispel incorrect or overly rigid beliefs children may have developed. Parents may want to point out positive role models; in the family, the community, or even in the popular culture, who are successful and have likes or traits that don't necessarily match the children's ideas of masculinity or femininity.

 




Contact Information

Sarah Dinklage, LICSW
Executive Director

sdinklage@risas.org

Charles Cudworth, MA
Director, SAS

ccudworth@risas.org

Leigh Reposa, MSW, LICSW
Program Manager
lreposa@risas.org

Colleen Judge, LMHC                  Manager, SAS
cjudge@risas.org 

Kathleen Sullivan
Manager, Community Prevention
ksullivan@risas.org


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