Over the years, there has been a tremendous emphasis in our society on building children’s self-esteem. I think it’s high time, we should be teaching children how to develop self-compassion instead.
The problem is that self-esteem is often developed by social comparison, meaning it requires a person to feel special and superior to others on a variety of dimensions. Children feel good about themselves when they get the A, win the game, receive the trophy and sometimes even by putting other children down to make themselves feel better. But this constant comparison needing to be better than other children instills a belief that it is NOT OK to be average.
When things don’t go well, feelings of superiority slip and self-esteem takes a nose dive, leaving kids vulnerable to anxiety, insecurity and depression.
Teach children how to develop self-compassion. Self-compassion is learning to extend understanding, compassion, and encouragement to yourself when things don’t go your way, treating yourself the way you would a close and treasured friend. Research shows increasing self-compassion has all the benefits of self-esteem but without the downsides. Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion reduces anxiety, lowers feelings of embarrassment when you mess up and is associated with steadier and more consistent feelings of self-worth. There are several ways to help foster self-compassion in children, including:
- Mindfulness: Help them notice things around them, savoring positive experiences when they occur. Teach them how to be present with themselves. Help them learn how to observe non-judgmentally their internal experience, understanding that they don’t have to believe every thought they think, especially the negative ones, and those emotions, like ocean waves, rise and fall if you just let them be.
- Kindness: Kindness begins when we understand that we all struggle. Talk to them in a non-critical way. Teach them how to self-soothe during difficult times. Teach older children to put their hand on their heart to self-soothe when upset. These small gestures help them value and feel good about themselves just as they are no matter what is going on. Teach children how to be kind to others. Ask what they did in their day to make someone happy, find volunteer opportunities to do together as a family, encourage your children to write thank you notes, recognize regularly when someone did something nice for another in the family.
- Compassion: Remind your children that they are not alone in experiencing this difficult thing, other children feel the exact same way. Everyone struggles, feel inadequate, does not get approved of, or fails at something in life. It’s part of our common humanity. This helps normalize what a child is going through and reduces shame and embarrassment over mistakes made and not feeling good enough. This school year, instead of seeking to become extraordinary and special, encourage your children to find the wonder and marvel of the ordinary. Make these ordinary moments come alive for them. Then the extraordinary will take care of itself.
- Gratitude: It’s so easy to focus on what’s wrong. Teach your children to focus on what’s right. Studies have shown that children who cultivate gratitude in their lives have better social relationships and do better in school. Make gratitude a part of your daily conversation. During dinner or as part of a bedtime ritual, ask children to share three things they’re grateful for about themselves and their lives. Ask them to reflect on why these things occurred to deepen their appreciation and understanding of the good things in their lives, including aspects of themselves, and not take it for granted.
As we talk about mindfulness, kindness, compassion, and gratitude, what we’re really talking about is putting more love out in the world. And that can be one of the most meaningful gifts we can give our children.