I remember an acquaintance in eighth grade who feigned illness many times to avoid school attendance. He was being chronically bullied, despite several of us trying to protect him. Apparently he would convince his mother he had various maladies, until one day she uncovered the truth. From that day forward, this poor boy had to go to school, even when his illness was legitimate. One of the teachers eventually seemed to catch on and decided to help him feel better about himself. He was a pretty talented artist, and she needed some new signs along the hallways and in some of the classrooms. She asked him to design and draw the signs, insisting he sign his name on each one. Those signs changed how he saw himself, 

as more valued and welcomed in school.

Working with a child’s special strengths, as this teacher did, is one of many ways to increase a child’s self-esteem. Children’s self-esteem is not a single image, like a photo, but rather a series of mental images, reflecting their willingness to take physical, emotional and social risks. Those images are a collection of memories of earlier successes and failures and, most importantly, of the way the important adults in that child’s life responded to both.

A child’s feelings about himself color how he interprets the world around him, either brightening or obstructing the lens through which he sees himself. Those with high self-esteem, who are successful with an important task, typically believe their success is due to skill and effort. Those with low self-esteem, who might do well at a task, attribute that to just good luck or else an easy task. They don’t trust their accomplishment and usually anticipate failure.

Adolescents with high self-esteem who make mistakes in their math homework or on a test see those mistakes as only a temporary setback or caused by distraction, whereas those with low self-esteem, making the same mistakes, believe they will never master the work and might as well quit doing math.

Children with chronically low self-esteem also tend to describe their relationships with their parents differently from children with high self-esteem. Those with low 

self-esteem tend to see their parents’ support as conditional, based on how well they do at a particular task, sport, etc. They feel supported for what they do, not for who they are. So what can parents and teachers do to build self-esteem in their children? Helping a child feel better about herself starts with listening, understanding, and making connection. Respecting each child’s view of the world, regardless of whether the adult agrees with that perspective, is also important. When a child knows she is being taken seriously, she feels her opinions and contributions are valued.

The old adage “children should be seen and not heard” is a sure path to diminishing a child’s self-esteem. When we treat children as “second-rate citizens,” excluding them from participation in decisions and family affairs that impact them, they feel like outsiders, that they’re not responsible, or worthy of having a voice. Imagine a time when you’re in a group, or at a meeting, speaking up to offer an idea or suggestion. Then imagine those in the group talking over you, dismissing your idea, or simply ignoring you altogether. Now reflect on how often that might happen to a child who is not included in family conversations that directly affect him/her. Children need to feel that they make a difference in their respective families, that their contribution, whether in household chores or in voicing an opinion, is valued. Starting with toddlers, we can teach them to help with chores around the house, by carrying things, or assisting with some small task. Showing our appreciation reinforces their motivation to continue helping, increasing responsibilities as they grow.

Let children’s rooms “belong” to them, allowing them to make choices about how they decorate. Displaying their artwork, photos and models around the common areas of our home also boosts self-confidence, as well as children’s sense of security. Studies in Britain found that children did better academically in schools where their academic achievements and artwork were displayed on the walls. It helps them feel like a valued, contributing member of the school community, that their work matters.

The concept of the one-room schoolhouse, one in which children mentor others, teaching a skill or supporting a younger child who needs attention, is such a powerful model. As children are encouraged to teach others, either a younger child, a struggling peer, or even an adult, their concept of themselves significantly improves. It’s a win-win situation, both for the child teaching and for the “pupil.” It’s a role children relish, mainly because they so infrequently have opportunities to assume this position. Too often they are micro-managed, supervised. Trusting that they are capable to manage the responsibility, while teaching a skill to another child or adult, helps children feel so good about themselves. Providing more opportunities for that, both at home and in school, quickly expands children’s confidence to other areas in their lives. Just like the teacher asking that boy in my eighth-grade class to make those signs, identifying even one skill or strength in a child can make all the difference in helping him feel better about himself. Confident children grow to be confident adults. We owe that to every one of our children.

“It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life that ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is firm.” — Fred Rogers