Thursday, July 3, 2008

Building Self Esteem - a key building block in mind/body universe

This article was originally published 4 years ago. The material is timeless and worth revisiting.

Read about how a few simple changes in can lead to developing great self esteem in children and help avoid some of the physical woes that can result later on in life due to unresolved emotions.

What does a good person look like?

A magazine cover might suggest a thin model with glossy hair and bright white teeth. A TV commercial might suggest a muscular businessman in a sparkling SUV.

But, for our children, must success and character be defined by possessions rather than personal power, by glamour rather than gold-heartedness?

Parents have to wonder sometimes if they can convince their children that what's inside is what matters, when kids are bombarded with so many superficial, outside factors. Yet hope may be found in strategies such as those in "Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues." Parents and teachers can use advice from the book, by developmental psychologist Thomas Lickona, and pointers from area experts to bolster a child's self-concept and value system.

Lickona believes that the key to success in life is a solid sense of character -- an attribute that appears to be waning, according to the 2002 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth issued by the Josephson Institute for Ethics in California.

The national survey of thousands of high school students showed that, in the past year, three out of four students admitted to cheating on an exam, about four in 10 said they had stolen something from a store, and about four in 10 said they would lie to get a job.

To combat these behaviors, experts suggest parents adopt a zero-tolerance policy for disrespectful speech and behavior. But do so in a proactive way, cautions Lickona, who also serves as a professor at the State University of New York at Cortland. Teach by example, he says; explain to children why it is wrong to lie and cheat.

Todd Snyder, a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Sarasota and a father of two boys, has been working with abused and neglected children for 15 years. Snyder said that now more than ever he notices that children are overwhelmed with pressure, both from the media and from their parents, to be "perfect."

The capitalist, commercially driven culture in which American children grow teaches them to seek external fulfillment, Snyder said. Children consequently end up striving for a superficial identity that is defined by appearances and the accumulation of materials, rather than by inner joy.

To lessen this pressure to be "the best," Snyder suggests parents avoid using such words around their children as "have to," "must" and "should" -- words that create an environment of absolutes and lofty expectations.

Children need to feel they have the ability to shape their reality, and parents do their children a disservice when they undermine their child's personal power.

Pam Parmenter, quality assurance director for Project Childcare in Bradenton, said it is crucial for parents to be present, especially between the ages of 6 and 9 when children have not yet moved from the pre-operational stage of cognitive development into the concrete operational stage. These children still think in pictures, therefore, and cannot fully distinguish between fantasy and reality.

And the violence, sexual content and sarcasm they view on TV screens do not register as fictional, or even as good or bad; it's at this point that parents must step in and make evaluations with a child, turning the dialogue into a character-building lesson.

This can be done in a variety of ways. Children can learn to opt to take the steps instead of the elevator, to ride their bikes instead of hitching rides in their parent's car. A healthier child will feel more energetic and willing to take successful risks, as opposed to a couch potato who will learn the habit of taking the easy way out in life, Parmenter said.

And when a child does a good job, parents should avoid offering a mere pat on the back. An explanation is due, too.

"Empty praise," as Parmenter calls it, does not help a child to understand why he or she did something right or wrong.

Specific positive reinforcement is a tool Dorothy Aldor has employed in her 40-year career working with children. An instructor at Little People's Place, a Sarasota nursery school, Aldor has watched children's attitudes change throughout the past four decades. When children are given the privilege of being the teacher's helper, or the one who passes out the arts and crafts supplies, they feel a positive sense of authority, Aldor said. It gives them hope that they can excel.

"There is always something you can do to make them feel big and important," she said.

For Rick Smith, this "something" is offering a child a hands-on approach to learning, particularly about the sciences. The teacher at Harllee Middle School in Bradenton believes that children are most empowered when they feel that they are in control of their destiny.

When teachers and parents demonstrate faith in a child's ability to problem-solve, the child learns to trust him or herself, and to formulate opinions. Smith has worked in education for 16 years, and his students have received national-level awards for their environmentally conscious beach clean-up and Reef Ball projects.

"We've got to give kids a vision," Smith said. "We have to give them a chance to say, 'This is what I think.'I make sure they know I'll be here to support them," he said.

Lem Andrews III, a basketball coach at Booker High School in Sarasota and a father of three, said participation in athletics can be an effective way to nurture a child's inner and outer strength.

What children act out on the court often mirrors the rest of their life -- they win some, they lose some, and they have to learn how to handle both end results. Andrews pushes his team to its full potential and avoids harsh criticism of mistakes, always trying to celebrate players' strengths without overlooking their weaknesses.

"You address losses like you do failures in life -- that's what makes you successful and stronger," Andrews said. "If we win the championship and we didn't learn how to be unselfish players, we just won an award."

Cora Taylor, a mother of three and a licensed mental health counselor for adults and children at Crossway Counseling and Learning in Port Charlotte, said self-esteem is like a three-legged stool. The first leg is belonging, the second is feeling worthwhile and the third is feeling capable.

Parents can tackle all aspects by engaging in age-appropriate activities with their children. For children younger than 6, parents can create a corner of the house where it is acceptable to make a mess during creative exercises. Let them finger-paint and do papier mâché without worrying about spilling glue on the furniture.

For children older than 6, parents should make an effort to spend time with their child's friends, to head to museums or beaches, and to sit in the bleachers during Little League games. All of these pro-social behaviors instill a sense of importance in a child.

If a child complains that he or she does not want to go to school on a given day, an incorrect response would be to assert, "Too bad; you're going anyway," Taylor said.

Instead, the parent should ask the child why he or she is hesitating to go, and react to what a child is feeling rather than what he or she says.

Teenagers, in particular, need attention from their parents, even though the youths often claim to want little to do with their parents. This is the time when adolescents are beginning to question everything around them, and endeavoring to find an identity.

"Teenagers, when they are coming into their own, will start challenging all the values Mom and Dad have taught them," Taylor said. "They need to know it's safe to do that."

Last modified: March 18. 2004 7:34AM

taken from the Herald Tribune Archives Southwest Florida

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