The Bible instructs parents to "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6)
In today's modern society we hear a lot about teaching children to have "self esteem" and by this it is meant that we should teach our children how to feel good about themselves. Psychologists tell us that people who think well of themselves are more confident, are more successful, and are happier in life.
Since parents want what is best for their children, they strive to instill within them a feeling of self-worth. That is, they want their children to feel that they are important, that they are valuable to others, and that others think highly of them. In this way their children can take pride in and have respect for themselves. The alternative is for children to feel that they are worthless, that they are not as good as others and that others look down upon them as being inferior.
Obviously, no decent parent wants their child to feel inferior therefore they strive to find ways to make their children feel loved and competent. But the problem is in finding the best way to do that. There is one school of thought that says parents should never criticize or say "no" to their children because doing so conveys to a child's mind that they have failed or that they are incapable of making right decisions. It is said that since a person's self-esteem can be damaged by constantly being criticized it is therefore assumed that the way to promote a person's self-esteem is to never say anything negative to them and constantly tell them how good they are no matter what they do.
A second school of thought says that children should be taught to strive for excellence and to never be satisfied with their performance. The idea behind this is that no matter how well a child may do something they can always do better. Those who subscribe to this kind of reasoning are constantly criticizing their children and rarely, if ever, complement or praise them.
A third school of thought seeks to take the middle road where parents praise their children for the good they do, criticize them for the things they do wrong, and encourage them to do better. There has been much debate concerning which method is better but to find the correct answer to that question we must first understand what self-esteem is and what causes it.
Self-esteem can be defined as a feeling of importance or being proud of one's self but such an attitude can lead to arrogance and conceit. Self-esteem can be defined as feeling competence or being capable of accomplishing assigned tasks but since not everyone has the skills to do everything well, this definition can lead a person to believe they are inferior to others. Self-esteem can also be defined as feeling loved no matter what their abilities are but this can lead to self-complacency where a person feels no need to improve their life.
While each of these definitions are correct as far as they go, it is clear there must be more to having self-esteem if a person is to keep their attitude positive instead of it turning negative. To do this there are two aspects of self-esteem that must happen together.
The first is that self-esteem comes from what we accomplish, not from what people say about us. While overly criticizing someone does have a dampening effect on a person's self-worth, confidence only comes when we are able to do things we couldn't do before, and the more things we can do well the more confidence we gain. This is why it is so important to learn as much as we can about as many things as we can.
Although all of us need the help of others from time to time, the more self-reliant we are the more self-confidence we acquire. In other words, the more we can do for ourselves without the need of others, the more confident we become in our ability to accomplish things. This is what makes the Boy Scouts of America such an effective program because it teaches boys a wide variety of skills that equip them to face most of life's challenges. And these skills are not just physical, such as tying knots, building a fire, cooking, and archery but it allows them to gain knowledge in areas such as science, medicine, geography, music, and biology to name a few, as well as instills in them the traits of being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, cheerful, thrifty, and brave.
But there is another reason for gaining knowledge and skills which is that it makes us better able to serve others. A person who doesn't know how to cook not only must depend on others for their meals but neither can they teach others how to cook. When we are able to help others, in any way - whether it is physically doing something for them or teaching them skills or imparting knowledge - it always produces a feeling of satisfaction and makes us feel proud of ourselves. The reason why this builds our self-esteem is because it proves to us that we are of value to others. This, in turn, makes us realize that we have self-worth which is another term for self-esteem.
In English the word "pride" has two meanings - egotism and satisfaction. Egotism is when we think we are better or somehow more important than someone else. This overly elevated opinion of one's self leads to an attitude of conceit and arrogance where a person feels superior to and looks condescendingly down on others.
The second definition of pride is to have a feeling of satisfaction, where a person takes delight or experiences personal pleasure in something they have accomplished. It's the kind of feeling that comes from a sense of inner happiness. Furthermore, this kind of pride doesn't necessarily need the approval of others because a person finds the approval they need from within themselves.
The exception to this is in young people who, if they don't receive external approval from others they respect, will begin to doubt their own feelings of accomplishment. This is why it is important for those who teach and guide young people to give them encouragement and praise because the opinions of others carry great weight. But as people gain more and more confidence in themselves the less the opinions of others affects their attitude. Therefore, the duty of a parent is to foster an environment where children can learn to accomplish things on their own.
However, false approval is just as detrimental as constant criticism. Since we all learn from our mistakes, to ignore mistakes under the erroneous idea that it would harm a person's self-esteem, only teaches someone that mediocre or sloppy work is acceptable. If self-worth comes from what we are able to accomplish and if what we accomplish isn't worth much or is too easy to do, then there is nothing of value to feel proud about. It is only when a person has done something well after much effort that truly brings a feeling of triumph.
For example, suppose that a sixteen year old boy ran in a race against a five year old boy. It is certain that the older boy will easily win but when he does he won't feel any real sense of pride precisely because his win was too easy for him to accomplish. But, if that same older boy ran against someone his own age or slightly older, and won by just one stride, because of the tremendous effort it required on his part, he would feel great satisfaction in what he had accomplished. And that same principle applies to everything we do. The greater the effort needed to successfully accomplish something the greater will be that person's sense of self-worth.
To have a feeling of self-esteem doesn't mean that a person has to do everything perfectly. Yet, there are those who expect perfection in all they or others do and when something hasn't been done perfectly, they feel a sense of failure. However, there is a significant difference between striving for perfection and being perfect.
Although there are some things we can do perfectly, humans are always prone to making mistakes. Therefore, to expect perfection in all things is asking for the impossible. No one can do that and anyone who expects it of themselves or others is not only being unrealistic but unreasonable. Because of that fact, it is obvious that all of us can and should strive to improve. For example, as good as a concert pianist might be, they can always be a little better. That is why they constantly practice. On the other hand, as bad as a one year old is at walking, they don't consider themselves a failure. Instead, they keep trying, and as they do they get better and better at walking.
To "strive" for perfection doesn't mean that we will actually achieve it. Rather, it means that we are trying to improve, to the best of our ability, with what skills, talent, and knowledge we have. The more we improve, the better we become at whatever it is we are trying to accomplish, and the better we can do something the more satisfied we become with ourselves. And the more satisfied we are with what we can do, the more self-esteem we gain. That is why it is important to keep striving for perfection.
But when we stop striving to improve ourselves we limit the amount of self-worth we are capable of achieving. Therefore, when we put limits on our abilities, at the same time we are also putting limits on our self-esteem. On the other hand, when are never satisfied unless we do something perfectly, we will never be satisfied with ourselves which means we will never achieve true self-esteem because we will always feel like a failure.
These are the kinds of principles that most psychologists focus on when trying to develop a person's self-worth but there is a second component to gaining self-esteem that is often overlooked but which is actually the more important of the two and that is the moral aspect.
It has been said that you cannot do a wrong thing for the right reason, meaning that wrong behavior is always wrong no matter what excuse is used to justify doing it. A similar saying states that two wrongs don't make a right. However, in today's current culture, that advice is often ignored as people condone behavior that once used to be considered inappropriate or unacceptable.
It is also a truism that doing wrong only brings sorrow. In the short term it may seem to bring happiness but eventually it leads to hardships, grief, guilt, or sadness. For example, a person who gets drunk may feel they are having "fun" as they party with their friends, but in the morning they experience the pain of a hangover. A thief who is able to steal something of great value temporarily feels a sense of satisfaction from having gained something they didn't pay for but shortly afterwards there comes the fear of being caught and the humiliation that comes when they are captured.
Doing something wrong most generally only produces a feeling of satisfaction for the moment but its effect is often very short lived. What replaces it is something just the opposite. If self-esteem can be defined as a feeling of being satisfied with one's accomplishments then it is obvious that when we do something wrong it diminishes our self-respect.
A person who lies to others may brag to themselves about their "skill" of deception and feel a sense of accomplishment in being able to successfully fool others but they are not really proud of themselves. They can't openly let others see how well they can do wrong because they know others will not think highly of them therefore they must keep their accomplishments secret which is, at the least, an unconscious feeling of guilt and guilt diminishes self-esteem.
Therefore, it is obvious that it isn't enough simply to successfully accomplish something. It must be done with integrity as well as with skill. Only in rare cases can someone take pride in doing something that is unethical. Therefore, to truly develop self-esteem, whatever a person does must be done with honor. Even when we aren't as skilled or as accomplished as someone else, there is joy and satisfaction in being known as a person of good character because that, in itself, is a great achievement.
Only those of low character are capable of admiring someone who is dishonest or unscrupulous. However, the vast majority of people have tremendous respect and admiration for those who are honest, trustworthy, and possess great integrity. Even a child who possesses these qualities is held in high regard by people of great accomplishment and there is no better way to build a person's self-esteem than when others treat them with respect.
On the other hand, people of celebrated talent who have allowed success to overly inflate their ego are often looked down upon by many who know them. Although the egotist often maintains a high opinion of themselves they can only do so on the false assumption that pop-culture adulation by fans is the same as being respected and held in high regard.
Yet self-esteem is not entirely dependent on what others think of us. The person who stands firm in their conviction to do what is right may find themselves standing alone and the temptation to conform to what the majority wants to do can be great. Those who give into that temptation will later regret their actions and feel a sense of guilt and shame while those who have the courage to remain true to their convictions ultimately gain a greater sense of self-confidence and often receive the respect of even those who once mocked them.
But there is one person's opinion that is important to all of us. At some point each of us will lay our mortal body in the grave and when that time comes we will find ourselves standing before our Creator where we will have to give an account of what we have done in this life. In all likelihood God will not ask us what we have accomplished but rather He will show us the record that has been made of our life. In that record will be every word we have uttered, every thought we have held, and every deed we have performed. And it is from that record we will be judged.
After reviewing that record, those who hear God say, "Well done thou good and faithful servant" will feel their confidence wax strong in the presence of the Lord, which is the highest degree of self-esteem a person can possibly have. On the other hand, no matter how much we might have achieved in this life, those who hear God say "Depart from me" (Matthew 25:21, 41) will feel a great sense of sorrow and remorse.
What will determine God's decision will not be based on our physical skills and talents but on how well we have accomplished His will. Instead of judging us on how well we have been able to do things for our self, it will be predicated upon how well we have been able to serve God and our fellow man (Matthew 22:35-40). Therefore, teaching children (as well as adults) how to succeed at accomplishing the two greatest commandments in the law is what will ultimately produce the greatest feeling of self-esteem.
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