Each person has a divine spirit of eternal value. God loves each of us, and we all have the potential to become like Him. Parents and other adults can help children learn from an early age that they have this great worth. The Family: A Proclamation to the World states: "All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny" (¶ 2).
Self-worth is one of the most important facets of a child’s life. Robert Brooks, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, defines feelings of self-worth as "including the feelings and thoughts that individuals have about their competence and worth, about their abilities to make a difference, to confront rather than retreat from challenges, to learn from both success and failure, and to treat themselves and others with respect."1
Brigham Young University scholars Barbara Lockhart and Shirley Cox describe worth as something that cannot be taken away or destroyed. Each of us has always possessed profound, eternal worth, whether we realize it or not. Feelings of worthlessness, although common, are false. Though we may feel worthless at times, our worth in the sight of God remains unchanged.
The Important Role of Parents in Teaching Children Their Self-Worth
Most parents wisely understand how important it is that their children have healthy self-worth. This characteristic gives children a strong inner purpose and direction in life. According to researchers, a child’s inner understanding of his or her self-worth plays a significant role in determining what that child will become later in life, and they say parents are essential in nurturing this understanding. Arlette Wright, the facilitator of parenting workshops, believes that nurturing feelings of self-worth in their children "is one of the most valuable gifts we can give them. As parents, we can be assured that this is a gift that lasts a lifetime."5
Most self-confident and resilient children come from happy, caring, affectionate, and supportive homes that are guided by clear and reasonable guidelines and discipline. Resilient children have the ability to bounce back from difficult situations. Healthy connection to parents or other adults can foster greater growth and self-worth.
A review of the research literature on this topic reveals that, while feelings ultimately have to come from within, parents have great power to foster or hinder self-worth in their children. This literature also shows that suggestions about how to increase these feelings are similar across studies. Most are simple and not difficult. These suggestions acknowledge that parenting is challenging and must be worked at constantly and attentively, but they do not require extraordinary parenting. Ordinary parents are enough to meet the needs of children.
Suggestions for Nurturing Feelings of Self-Worth in Children
Here are practical ideas for fostering a child’s self-worth:
- Pay full attention to your children. Listen. Be attentive. When you listen attentively, children feel that they matter to you. In many cases, they can solve their own problems just by talking to someone who cares. Show interest in your child’s activities. Try to be home when they leave in the morning and when they come home from school in the afternoon. Attend events where your children show their talents, such as school plays, musical performances, or sporting events.
- Treat your children with respect. When your children are in the room, acknowledge them, even if you’re busy. Talk about them positively to other people in situations where they can hear your praise. Don’t criticize them in front of other people.
- Be affectionate with your children. Show your affection both physically and verbally. Most young children love to be held, hugged, and kissed. Older children also appreciate hugs and pats on the back. Spending time with your children also communicates affection, as does writing them notes or just sitting and talking with them.
- Communicate your appreciation for your children. Let your children know that you notice them and are aware of their good behavior. Even when they haven’t done anything out of the ordinary, let them know you appreciate them. It’s important for them to know they are loved just because they are, not because they’re good or meet adult expectations.
- Discipline your children in positive ways. When a child misbehaves, never discipline in anger. Rather, take the time to think of positive ways to teach and correct him. A child responds much more positively to kind and gentle teaching than to harsh discipline. Research shows that children display more confidence and control when parents discuss bad behavior and problem solving with them rather than use physical punishment. Powerful teaching moments that improve a child’s self-perception can occur when parents learn to control their words and actions.
- Allow your children to be independent and responsible. Teach children principles and then allow them to explore and learn. Set tasks for them and allow them to carry them out. Support them and direct them, but do not force them to change or to do things your way. Let change and improvement come about through your patience and example. As you teach your children to be independent and trustworthy, it is important to treat them as trustworthy. Also, while it is important for children to be independent and responsible, don’t be afraid to perform tasks for and with them occasionally, even if they are capable of doing it on their own.
Dorothy Lee, in Valuing the Self, discusses how the Dakota Indian tribe taught her the importance of simultaneously setting tasks for children and teaching them. She recalls:3
The boys and mature men, whose autonomy leave me agape, are expected to obey and do obey; boys perform terrific self-initiated feats, fired by the desire to please their fathers (but should they not try to please themselves instead?).
Parents offer unsolicited advice, information, directions, and their sons take no offense. Instead of letting their children discover the path of self-discipline through trial and error, floundering along, adults set tasks for them. Men and women perform little pampering services for their sons who are perfectly capable of doing them themselves. Yet I see that autonomy remains undimmed.
Nurturing Feelings of Self-Worth in Children Not Your Own
Many children come from home environments where they don’t receive the love and emotional support they need. These children desperately need nurturing from adults other than their parents. Dr. Terry Olsen, a professor at the Brigham Young University School of Family Life states:
Children can be introduced into a false world where they are treated falsely, where they have no appropriate relational connection, where an example of the way relationships can, should, and ought to be is not presented to them. When children are not esteemed, the sins of the parents are visited upon the heads of the children. Children’s escape from the sins of the parents can come when someone, somewhere, esteems them—not in an attempt to make them feel loved, but as an expression of love unfeigned. And, if those moments do not come until the children are accountable, they must be willing to receive the unfeigned love and not mistake if for, or resist it as, something else. But however long and hard the road, there is the possibility of absolute, full, whole, relief, love, hope, and peace.
Researchers have concluded that a child needs at least one considerate and caring relationship with another adult. Teachers, neighbors, relatives, religious leaders, athletic coaches, and friends can all play a role in helping a child see his or her worth.
Here are ideas about how non-parental adults (as well as parents) can foster feelings of self-worth in children:
- Give children high, but realistic expectations. Have consistent, understandable, and reasonable expectations of a child. Children need to understand that something is expected of them and they need to know that someone out there believes in them. Tell them they can do it. Be their cheerleaders. Consistent expectations can inspire courage in a child and will allow him or her to take appropriate risks. Take opportunities to be encouraging and optimistic and let children know that you have confidence in them.
- Be encouraging. Encouragement can invite a child to develop a better attitude. While pessimism discourages and degrades children, optimism can uplift and inspire them. Scholars have stated that people are not motivated to change when they feel inadequate. Encouragement is the key. When children realize that people notice the good things they do, they will continue to practice those behaviors.
- Be available to a child. Be there to support a child when he or she needs it, but don’t interfere unduly in his or her life. Make time in your own schedule to focus on the child and his/her needs. Simply having someone around who a child can trust provides greater security.
- Listen intently and understandingly to children. Allow a child to talk and express his or her feelings and concerns. Take seriously what the child is saying and do not underestimate or make light of what you hear. When children feel they have someone to talk to, they will gain more confidence in you and themselves. By listening to a child, you can let her know she is important and that you care about what happens to her.
Written by Janell Langlois, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Brooks, R. (2003). Self-worth, resilience and hope: The search for islands of competence.
- Lee, D. L. (1976). Valuing the self. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.
- LeFebvre, J. E. (2004). Parenting the preschooler. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Extension Service.
- Wright, A. (1999). Helping to build high self-esteem in your children. Author.