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.
One of the greatest ways parents, relatives, guardians, friends, and teachers can foster children’s feelings of self-worth is to understand their divine nature. 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). When we deeply comprehend how valuable children are, we can better help them understand both their eternal value and their importance in this life.
In many eras of history, family survival depended on the work of both parents and children. Children were needed and essential. After the Industrial Revolution, people increasingly began to view children more as burdens on time and resources. Today too many parents see their children in terms of whether the children contribute or detract from their fulfillment, self-image, and well-being.
While the world may consider taking care of children a menial task that hinders adult personal growth, Christ taught that children are of infinite value. He expects all people, but especially parents, to treat children with utmost care and tenderness.
When the disciples asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Christ brought forward a child and said, "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. . . . Whosoever, therefore, shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:1-4). Children have an innocence that the Lord asks us all to acquire. They are a gift from heaven -- humble, teachable, lovable, meek, and trusting.
President Gordon B. Hinckley counseled:
Never forget that these little ones are the sons and daughters of God and that yours is a custodial relationship to them; that He was a parent before you were parents and that He has not relinquished His parental rights or interest in these His little ones. Now, love them, take care of them. Fathers, control your tempers, now and in all the years to come. Mothers, control your voices; keep them down. Rear your children in love, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Take care of your little ones. Welcome them into your homes, and nurture and love them with all of your hearts.5
Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught:
Every human being is a spirit child of God and lived with Heavenly Father before coming to earth. He entrusts his spirit children to earthly parents, who provide a mortal body for them through the miracle of physical birth, and gives to parents the sacred opportunity and responsibility to love, protect, teach, and to bring them up in light and truth so they may one day, through the atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ, return to our Father’s presence.1
Robert D. Hales, while serving as Presiding Bishop, stated:
In many ways earthly parents represent their Heavenly Father in the process of nurturing, loving, caring [for], and teaching children. Children naturally look to their parents to learn of the characteristics of their Heavenly Father. After they come to love, respect, and have confidence in their earthly parents, they often unknowingly develop the same feelings toward their Heavenly Father.3
When we realize how much children are worth and that they are "the greatest in the kingdom of heaven," we will want to do the best we can to teach, serve, and nurture the children Heavenly Father has entrusted to us. As we do this, we will be blessed. We will learn far more than if we were to focus on our own fulfillment.
Practical Ideas for Parents
In an Ensign article entitled "Helping Your Children Like Themselves," James Harris offered ten ways parents can help children understand their worth .4 The following ideas are adapted from his list.
- Teach children that they are divine spirits who have the potential to become like their Father in Heaven. Frequently remind children of their divine nature and divine potential. Teach them that their Heavenly Father loves them and will never leave them alone. Help them to come to this knowledge for themselves through prayer and scripture study.
- Be positive and optimistic when children make mistakes; avoid dwelling on their weaknesses. How a parent reacts to difficult situations can have a great impact on a child’s feelings of worth. When your children make mistakes, minimize them as appropriate and help them move on quickly. Give sincere and positive feedback. When parents accept children and encourage them, children develop confidence.
- Understand each child and adapt your teaching style accordingly. Each child has different strengths, weaknesses, and needs. Know your child well so you can adapt your parenting to his or her individual personality. Avoid comparing children with their siblings. Be interested in each child’s life, supporting his or her goals and desires. Sister Michaelene P. Grassli, former general president of the Primary, said:We need to discover who our children really are. We need to know what interests them, what worries them, and what they would do if they had their fondest dreams come true. Nearly always, their fondest dreams are wonderful. We can let children be their own selves and not expect them to be reproductions of their parents. Give them varied experiences so they can discover what interests them, and then encourage these interests and talents—even if they are not the same as yours.2
- Teach children correct principles, but give them room to learn and grow by encouraging them to do things on their own. Parents should not do everything for their children. When parents allow children to do things on their own or work with them side-by-side as they learn, children develop maturity and confidence. Once you’ve taught as best you can, let your children practice on their own what you’ve taught.
- Help your child develop self-worth by learning to serve others. Teach children the importance of serving others. Help them recognize the good feelings they experience when they help someone else. A deep sense of self-worth and confidence can develop when we selflessly give to others. Even very young children can come to realize their important role in blessing the lives of others.
- Spend as much time with your children as you can. The best gift you can give your children is yourself. Spend time alone with each child. Enjoy an activity together or just sit and talk. This one-on-one time helps your child feel important and loved. It also helps you maintain closeness, which is so important to a child’s development and sense of self.
- Teach your children how to work. Children who know how to work hard gain a strong sense of self-worth. They need you to fully show what’s expected of them and to show them by example. Work with them until they understand how to complete tasks. Don’t expect them to understand your definition of "clean your room" without your showing them, not just telling them
- Teach children to see the good in other people. Help children to realize that we are all brothers and sisters and we are all blessed with different strengths and weaknesses. When children say or do mean things to other people, it sometimes reflects the way they view themselves. It’s easy to pick out weaknesses in others, but helping children build the habit of looking for the good in others helps them learn to see the good in themselves.
- Teach children to respect themselves and not to dwell on their shortcomings. One of the best ways to teach self-respect despite shortcomings is to model this behavior yourself. When you admit your mistakes matter-of-factly, without berating yourself, and then do something to correct them, your children will learn to do the same. Everyone makes mistakes. They can be an important learning tool if we don’t dwell on them but rather acknowledge them and then improve.
- Speak and act in ways that sincerely express your love to your children. Sometimes words alone can be a powerful tool for fostering self-worth in your child. He or she needs to hear the words "I love you." Simple actions, too, such as a hug or kiss, communicate loving feelings. President Hinckley has said, "Children need sunlight. They need happiness. They need love and nurture. They need kindness and refreshment and affection. Every home, regardless of the cost of the house, can provide an environment of love which will be an environment of salvation".5
Written by Janell Langlois, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Ballard, M. R. (1991, May). Teach the children. Ensign, 78.
- Grassli, M. P. (1994, April). Teaching our children. Ensign, 62.
- Hales, R. D. (1993, November). How will our children remember us? Ensign, 9.
- Harris, J. M. (1983, February). Helping your children like themselves. Ensign, 14.
- Hinckley, G. B. (1997, July). Excerpts from recent addressed of President Gordon B. Hinckley. Ensign, 72.