What Builds Real Self-Esteem in Kids?

How did we get to the place where self-esteem has become such a well-guarded idol?

It’s epidemic in Western parenting.  A child’s self-esteem is considered the fragile power source of his future success as a human being.  Parents (and some educators) have employed themselves as self-esteem’s trusted custodians, carefully guarding against disappointment and potential failure, as though they are the greatest threats to a child’s sense of worth.

Let’s have a look at what “great self-esteem” has accomplished in our kids.  According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 2800 teens get pregnant each day, resulting in nearly one million teen pregnancies nationwide per year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say nearly 3,000 people under the age of 18 become regular smokers each day. And according to Students Against Drunk Driving, 72% of high schoolers report having used alcohol – 37% say they did it by the 8th grade.

Education is bearing similar fruit. “The statistics are staggering: among 30 developed countries, theU.S.is ranked 25th in math and 21st in science. It’s estimated that by the year 2020, there will be 123 million high-paying, high-skill jobs in the United States, but only 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill these positions.”  www.waitingforsuperman.com

So either self-esteem isn’t as important as everyone thought, or the Western parenting model isn’t building real self-esteem. I’d say it’s the latter. People do need to know that they are valuable and their life is worth something, but the question is, how do we help our kids get there?

What makes a person feel worthy? I can tell you one thing that doesn’t – flattery. And isn’t that what we’re doing when we tell our children that every single thing they do is fabulous? Every picture is a masterpiece. Every note played or sung is magnificent. Every performance is stellar. Our kids are smart, and deep down, they know it isn’t true. Now, what does that do self-esteem?

Schools have jumped on the flattery band wagon too. Nearly every child gets an award, and almost every student is “honored” as Student of the Month. A few years ago, I went to my nephew’s baseball game, and I was amazed that the whole “three strikes and you’re out” rule has struck out. Now, kids get to swing as many times as it takes to hit the ball — wouldn’t want to hurt their self-esteem, you know.

Psalms 12:3 says, “The Lord shall cut off all flattering lips.”  And Proverbs20:19warns, “meddle not with him that flattereth with his lips.”

Our kid’s want to know that we value them and that they’re worth something, but that’s not the message we send when we play lineman, aggressively fighting off all threats of failure and disappointment.

We tell them we value them by spending time with them and listening to their stories and offering honest, heart-felt answers to their questions. We tell them we value them when we take an interest in discovering who God created them to be, and giving them open and honest feedback so that they can find the lane they were created to run in and then run in it with excellence.

Our daughters (Skyler and Sydney) are best friends (that worked out well, huh?), and recently they choreographed a dance together to perform at the county fair. When they had all the moves down, they performed it for us in Jody’s living room. We couldn’t help but think they were so cute, but we also knew that their dance wasn’t performance worthy.

“Did you guys have fun doing that?” we asked. “You sure looked cute! And we’re so happy that you enjoyed it. We could tell you were having a blast. But we don’t think you should perform it at the fair. You both have so many talents, and perhaps if you had lessons you’d be ready to enter a contest, but for now, you should focus on your strengths.”

If our daughters were passionate about dance (or even just strongly interested), we’d encourage it – scouting out local dance performances, signing them up for classes, and encouraging them to enter dance contests.

We call this “running in your own lane.” And when we care enough to help our kids figure what their lane is, we are sending a message that they are valuable to us.

Once they figure out what they love and what peaks their interest, they have a sense of worth because they can live with purpose. They’ll know God has a plan for them, and they’ll even have a clue about what the plan is. All of that adds up to self-worth.

In case you were concerned about our little dancing queens, they had a happy ending at the county fair.  Between the two of them, they raked in a stack of blue ribbons, won a good amount of prize money, won best of show for two items, sang beautifully before a live audience, and did a stellar demonstration on how to spin art yarn. Their recognition came from hard work and talent. They had earned it, and the reward felt good.

As for dance, they’re both currently enrolled in a ballroom dancing class. So maybe they can try next year…maybe.

We can help boost our kid’s self esteem by encouraging and equipping them to work hard and enjoy true rewards. Few things feed self-esteem like a sense of integrity, and to that end, we can coach them to define their own values and hold them accountable to live by them. As we disciple our kids and help them discover the plans God has for them, and then challenge them be the very best they can be, we can help improve their sense of worth. These are the markers of real self-esteem.

Dare I say flattery has the opposite effect? What are your thoughts…

Jenni Stahlmann

Jenni Stahlmann is the mom of seven kids (ages 1 to 20) including one on the autism spectrum. She and her husband Matthew homeschool the whole brood. Jenni has been a journalist for more than 20 years, having covered government, business and family issues for a wide range of magazines and newspapers. Currently, she and Jody co-host a weekly syndicated radio show, write a weekly newspaper column and freelance articles and speak at churches, political groups and homeschool conventions about parenting on purpose.

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Roller Coaster Victory

Who knew a trip to the amusement park would hold a secret to victorious living?

We brought our son’s friend to Busch Gardens for the day, and when we got there, the two of them made a beeline for the biggest roller coaster they were tall enough to ride. It had never occurred to us that Sam’s little friend might have a problem. She comes from a family of big coaster enthusiasts. Her mom and I have even talked about the joy of doing an amusement park with coaster-friendly people. But the look on her face at the end of the ride made it clear she did not share her family’s amusement park tenacity. It turns out she was too little to ride the big coasters the last time they went. So no one in her family could guess that she wouldn’t love it.

Sam was so sad. He had been looking forward to spending this day with his best bud, and he couldn’t wait to experience all of his favorite rides with her. But after that first one, she couldn’t face the Scorpion – Sam’s absolute favorite coaster. So she stayed behind with one of the older teens and waved from the ground at our sad boy, who wasn’t sure how approach the rest of the day.

I felt the weight of Sam’s disappointment, but the look on his friend’s face was familiar — I knew exactly what she was feeling. When I was 11 years old, I went to Rye Playland with some friends, and just like Nawal, I was the roller coaster rookie that day. As soon as we arrived, we too headed for the biggest coaster. A hint of butterflies in my belly were more about excitement than fear. It hadn’t really occurred to me that I might not like the experience.

I still remember that first drop. I was totally unprepared for the intense feeling of losing my stomach, and my instincts led me to hold my breath and squeeze my belly tight – the worst thing you can do on a roller coaster. I don’t remember anything else about that day, but it was years before I got on another coaster. Then one day, at Six Flags Great Adventure, someone taught me the secret: at the top of a hill, just before the drop, take the deepest breath your lungs can hold, and let it all out in a giant scream on your way down. Coincidentally, my roller coaster victory happened on a ride called the American Scream Machine.

Knowing I had the secret that could transform her day, I didn’t want to see Nawal delay her victory for years like I had. If only I could find a tiny glimmer of courage in her little heart, I knew I could coach her through the Scorpion and turn a defeat into a triumph, saving the day for both her and Sam. So after a few successful rounds on River Rapids, I pulled her aside and squatted down for a serious girl-to-girl talk.

“Nawal, I know what happened on Gwazi. You went down the big hill, and it felt really bad, right?”

Her big brown eyes stared back at me, and slowly, she moved her head up and down.

“That happened to me once too. But then someone taught me a special trick, and from then on, the bad feeling never happened again. I could teach it to you, and if you do exactly what I show you, you’ll never be afraid of another roller coaster.”

I searched her sweet little face for that glimmer of courage, and even though her eyebrows were squeezed together in the middle and pulled up in distress, I sensed that she wanted victory.

“Nawal, if you come with me, I’ll sit right next to you, and I’ll show you exactly what to do, and it will be more fun than you could ever imagine. Do you think you could try?”

She was scared. It was written in her feet, crossed nervously (one on top of the other), and in her hands twisting together, and in her bottom lip, tucked awkwardly under a few of her front teeth. She sighed, processing my proposal, and then tentatively, she nodded and slipped her hand slowly into mine.

Sitting beside me in the car, the bar came down over her head and locked into place, and I began to describe exactly how it would go down, turn by turn.

“First we’re going to climb up this hill, and this is the time to relax and wave to the people down below. But when we reach the top, make sure you take the biggest, deepest breath your lungs can possibly hold, and then…as soon as we begin to drop…let it out in the loudest scream your voice can make.”  I could tell she liked the idea of being allowed to scream as loud as she wanted, but the upside-down part was still freaking her out.  “As soon as the drop is over, we’ll be in the loop before you even know it. It won’t feel at all scary – it will just be super fun!”

The ride happened exactly as I had said it would, and when we pulled in, every part of Nawal expressed triumph. She had faced her fear, followed my directions to the letter, and come out victorious. The ride was exciting, of course, but for Sam’s little friend, the greatest thrill came from knowing that she had chosen courage, and it paid off. The reward for bravery was confidence. She threw off the weight of fear and skipped through the rest of her day, knowing there was no roller coaster she couldn’t tackle – well, of those she’s tall enough to ride, that is.

On the way home, I thought about Nawal’s victory, and God showed me something. The Holy Spirit is our coach, and when He asks us to take His hand and face our fear, He promises to stay right by our side, directing us every step of the way. All we need to do is choose courage, and follow His lead. The victory for us will be just as sweet as Nawal’s roller coaster joy!

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” –2 Timothy 1:7


Jenni Stahlmann

Jenni Stahlmann is the mom of seven kids (ages 1 to 20) including one on the autism spectrum. She and her husband Matthew homeschool the whole brood. Jenni has been a journalist for more than 20 years, having covered government, business and family issues for a wide range of magazines and newspapers. Currently, she and Jody co-host a weekly syndicated radio show, write a weekly newspaper column and freelance articles and speak at churches, political groups and homeschool conventions about parenting on purpose.

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Can They Say It With Confidence?

Have you ever experienced the awkward introduction of a timid child?  You know, the kind where the kid looks everywhere but at you?  She’s burrowing into her mother, burying her head, peaking out on occasion, speaking just barely above a whisper?  I don’t know about you, but I see this all the time, and early in my parenting, I purposed to train confident kids who bless the people they meet.

I’m in a new season of life, with my oldest in law school, my youngest in middle school, and now I have new mission.  I feel called to help the parent standing beside the timid child.  As far as I can tell, there are two basic types: the embarrassed parent who tries to dismiss it or offers up an excuse for the withdrawn behavior, or the unknowing parent who doesn’t recognize there’s a problem because it’s so commonplace.

My heart aches for the parents, and quite frankly, it grieves for the kids.  They do not understand why their hearts pound and why a sudden, sometimes crippling, insecurity grips them with a simple introduction.

One mom even told me that her son wouldn’t look at the doctor when asked how he felt.  Another said her daughter wouldn’t answer the door when the doorbell rang.  I even had a mom once say that her children couldn’t carry on a phone conversation without panic.

That’s nothing short of a crisis.

As parents, it’s our job to give our kids effective communication tools.  So, in my quest to train confident kids, I came up with a weekly assignment that produced great fruit in my children and is now bearing fruit in other kids.

I am convinced that it can change a child’s life and alter the way they perceive themselves in relationship to other people.

Remember the moms I talked about with painfully shy kids?  Well, after implementing this assignment, the same kids now look the doctor in the eye and explain what’s wrong, answer the door, and talk on the phone with confidence.  I’ve even seen teens and pre-teens grow into effective communicators who can contact a place of business without hesitation and gather important information with respect and confidence.

Eager to know what it is?  First, let me prescribe that it be done three times a week.  Repetition is key.  The more they practice, the more confident they will become.  (Begin with role-playing and practice as a family before assigning this to them publicly.)

  • With you watching, have your child approach someone they do not know (this could be a clerk at a store, a new person at church, a new friend in a club, etc.).
  • Explain to them how to make strong eye contact (this means not to look away, look the person directly in the eye).
  • Instruct them to extend their right hand firmly and direct.  No wimpy handshakes (this goes for girls too).
  • Have them memorize, “Hello, my name is_________________, what is your name?  It’s very nice to meet you, have a great day.”
  • When they report back, have them repeat the entire conversation, especially the person’s name.  Nervousness = mind going blank.  If they know they have to come back to you with a name, it will help them focus on remembering.  The anxiety will eventually disappear.

After they master this, you can move on to what I like to call the “interview”:  teaching them to move into a conversation after an introduction.  But you’ll have to check back for a future post!

Know this, your child has something to say, and God wants them to say it with confidence.

Be sure to stop back and leave a comment, letting us know how it’s going!

Jody Hagaman

Jody Hagaman and her husband Tony have three kids, ages 18 to 30 and one precious baby grandchild. Jody’s story of how her son asked to be homeschooled has inspired
tens of thousands of families around the nation. A true homeschooling success story, that son is now an attorney in New Hampshire and is the New England Regional Director of The Concord Coalition, a bipartisan
organization dedicated to advocating responsible fiscal policy.

As a community leader, Jody has served on the board of directors of many local non-profit organizations. Her work experience as a corrections officer on a crisis intervention team inspired her to make a difference in the lives of the next generation.

She and Jenni co-host a weekly radio show, write a syndicated weekly column and freelance articles and speak at churches, political groups and homeschool conventions about living on purpose with excellence and raising kids with the end result in mind.

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