A few years ago, some experts decided children with behavior problems suffered from low self-esteem. A campaign began to educate parents and teachers on how to improve the self-esteem of children to minimize bullying and other negative behaviors. It started out innocently enough. Parents were told to encourage their children instead of constantly criticizing them. Surely, there were quite a few parents who needed a reminder that constant criticism without some praise and loving words thrown in was potentially damaging.
But by the time my child reached school age, things were getting out of control. Children were allowed multiple chances to behave before a rule was enforced and consequences given. They were learning stop light colors and fractions more than they were learning to obey. There couldn’t be a dean’s list because the children who didn’t make good grades might “feel badly about themselves”. There were hardly any competitions, because it hurt a child’s feelings to lose.
What has became the new norm is children who are basically allowed to decide when they want to behave. Many children also believe they should never have to expect to lose and that life will always be fair (translated: in their favor). Studies are showing children now often have unrealistically high views of themselves and their capabilities. Interestingly, there also seems to be a corresponding lack of taking responsibility for one’s actions. Suddenly, everything you do wrong is someone else’s fault.
Eventually more studies were done. It turns out bullies actually have unrealistically high self-esteem that contributes to their behavior. But by then, the complete fairness doctrines were entrenched and many schools kept them in place. Parents have been trained to think they need to hover over their children and protect them from any disappointment. Teachers will tell you that now the parents are often angry with the teacher and not the child if the child is in trouble at school for misbehaving or getting poor reports.
How does this effect Christianity? To accept one’s need for God means you to need to be humble. Humility allows you to see and admit your faults or sins. Humility allows you to admit your need for God and obey His plan for salvation and forgiveness. When your self esteem is too high, you find it very difficult to be humble. What obviously perfect person needs God or forgiveness?
But being a Christian also calls you to love others as you love yourself. If you hate yourself, you will find it difficult to love others. If you have horrible self-esteem, you feel unloveable. How can you accept God’s love for you and share it with others if you don’t believe you are worthy of being loved?
God created the world for us to enjoy, but Christianity may call us to sacrifice and even potentially die for our faith. I thinks it takes a certain combination of self esteem and humility to be able to stand up for your beliefs while still turning to God for His help and guidance in difficult times.
So how do we teach our children a healthy Christian self-esteem which helps them love God and others while teaching them the humility to recognize their need for God and His mercy? It’s a difficult balance, but I think parents can help their children learn both.
1. Praise your child appropriately. This does not mean you tell a three year old his drawing is “just scribbles”, but it also doesn’t mean you tell your daughter she will be a professional artist unless you really think she has talent. A lot of talents can be developed with training and practice. Usually a true “genius” at something has a God given gift that is obvious. It’s fine to encourage your child to work on his talents and gifts, but it’s not necessary to over-do the praise to accomplish that.
2. Make your child take personal responsibility for her actions. Students in my class always love the exchange they have with me when they inform me someone “made them” do something wrong. I usually respond by asking them if the other person had a weapon. I always get the strangest looks from the children! I remind them they may have an argument if someone was holding a weapon on them, but even then they had the free choice to not make the wrong choice. It is important for your child to understand that even the devil can’t “make” them make a bad choice. If they make a bad choice the responsibility is entirely theirs.
3. Your child may “know” you love him, but tell him “I love you” every day. Show her you love her and value her by speaking in her love language. (Gary Chapman has an interesting book on this: The 5 Love Languages of Children) This may mean a hug, some special time one on one or a little treat. Continue to tell them you love them even if you feel they don’t respond in return. Many children go through various phases when they feel uncomfortable telling their parents they love them or returning hugs. Continue to love your child through the phase. Tell them you love them and don’t react if they don’t respond. If they won’t let you hug them, put an arm around their shoulder or rub their back quickly. You may be surprised when they eventually respond with their own hugs.
4. Teach your children to be thankful to God for their gifts. When you praise your child’s talent, try adding “God really blessed you with musical talent” (or whatever). Hopefully, your child will begin to think of his gift as a blessing from God. Part of humility is realizing that everything we have is from God. Make thanksgiving a major part of your family prayers, especially taking the time to thank him for your family’s gifts and talents.
5. Model humility by admitting your faults to your children. Apologize if you overreact or commit a sin in front of them. Tell them how grateful you are God forgives us of our sins. The “perfect” parent is a myth and trying to pretend to your children that you are doesn’t help any of you.
6. Help your child discover his gifts and talents. You may want your daughter to be a swimmer, but God may have created her to be a gifted artist to accomplish things for His kingdom. Let your children experiment in different areas to find what their talents are. In our house, the rule is that if you commit for a season or event, you must follow through because people are depending on you. If at the end of that time, you feel the activity is not for you, it is okay to try something else. You may be surprised that with a little freedom and encouragement your child may quickly discover his passion to use for God. (Max Lucado has a great book that will give you more ideas: Cure for the Common Life)
7. Play board games and let your child lose. Admit it. Many parents will lose games on purpose to avoid the inevitable melt down that occurs when a small child loses a game. At some point (preferably very early), it is important to take the time to teach your child how to be a good loser and a good winner. Ironically, both require humility. Try to play games at first that require more luck than skill. This will make the odds of winning more equal and allow several people to take turns being good winners and losers.
8. Teach your child to serve others. True service teaches a child to be grateful for their blessings. Often they must humble themselves to do things they consider “yucky” or “boring” to help others who desperately need their help. Remind them how Jesus washed the apostles’ feet. Service is a great way of teaching humility and self esteem at the same time.
Helping your child maintain the correct balance of self esteem and humility may be one of the most valuable things you can do to position him where he not only understands his need for God, but acts on it and shares it with others. It may take extra effort on your part as a parent, but it makes a big difference in how they receive and share God’s words. I wonder if the Apostle Peter’s parents had any idea the life they were preparing him for in Christian ministry?!
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