If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d end up doing “self esteem exercises” every morning, I would have laughed. I grew up convinced that anyone who advocated for raising self esteem in children was trying to do away with the hierarchy of natural talent, and would end up trapping students on a feel-good plateau of mediocrity. This way of thinking wasn’t entirely wrong: recent studies have shown that children are more successful when they are praised for trying hard, rather than for being smart. But somehow it ended up, at least in my experience, with parents denying or ignoring the need to praise their children at all. I was lucky enough to have supportive and appreciative parents; but a dear friend of mine grew up thinking that he was stupid, because he received nothing but criticism at home. As an adult, he discovered that many of his difficulties were due to an undiagnosed and untreated disability, and that many of the talents and skills he took for granted were actually in high demand and esteem outside of his family. He has found out that his parents were actually very proud of him but never got around to telling him that. He is doing well, but still struggles against the self-doubt and feelings of deficiency that have been programmed into his brain.
This is why, at the risk of giving my children big heads, I work hard to praise their efforts and natural talents alike, to notice and point out their achievements, to be encouraging about their failures, and to tell them point-blank that I am proud of them, and that I love them.
This last point–explicitly telling the kids how I feel about them–brings me back to the self-esteem exercises, which were recommended by my counselor. Like Gottman’s scripts, they sound awkward at first, because they’re so obvious and cliche (my personal version is “I am good. I am a daughter of God. I deserve to be loved and respected”); but that doesn’t make them unnecessary. Yes, I know that God loves me, just like a child knows that his parent loves him; but it is so much easier to believe it when you hear it out loud! In the same way, I know that my husband cares about me and is listening; but it helps so much if he makes sure to express it with a script like “how was your day?” or “yeah, that sounds rough” or “poor baby” or just “uh-huh.” Silence can be misinterpreted; saying something, even if sounds unnatural, clears things up. Whether you suffer from the criticism of your family and peers, or just the lifelong crushing weight of original sin, it’s important to be reminded, out loud, that you are loved.