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How to Raise Kids with Good Self-Esteem


WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Andrew Postman
Good Housekeeping Magazine Logo
One of the best ways to boost kids' self-esteem, permanently: Teach them how to handle flops

 

The tennis club where Peter played was fed up with the talented boy's tantrums on the court. So were his parents. They agreed to suspend the 12-year-old for six months.

Howie, too, was a talented athlete. He played almost every sport — and whined in all of them when things didn't go his way. His friends, me included, couldn't change him, and his parents didn't seem to try. One afternoon, in a neighborhood baseball game, 12-year-old Howie tried to stretch a double into a triple and was easily tagged out. He protested, began to cry, and appealed to his teammates to join him in getting the call reversed. But we agreed with the ump. Howie turned purple with rage, took his ball and bats, and went home.

In the first case, Peter (not his real name) saw that the club and his parents meant business. After six months of being denied tennis, his greatest pleasure, Peter — real name Björn Borg — had learned a vital lesson. He grew up to be not only one of the greatest players in history, but a gentleman in victory and, yes, defeat.

In the second case, Howie (his real name, because I hope he reads this and recognizes himself for the jerk he was and may still be) never learned. His parents seemed to ignore or indulge his behavior, and his friendship with me and our teammates didn't survive the day we called him out at third base.

It's easy to see that the approach apparently taken by Howie's parents — ignoring bad behavior — is not an effective way to teach a kid how to lose gracefully. It's harder to know what is. We accept that success is just about impossible if you don't know how to use your flops. ("I have not failed 700 times; I have not failed once," Thomas Edison bristled when asked about the staggering number of false starts before he created a functioning lightbulb. "I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work.") But it's one thing to understand intellectually the bumper sticker truths about failing — what doesn't kill us makes us stronger; no one wins all the time — and another to embrace them when it's your kid who's hurting. "Which test am I supposed to want to see her fail so she can build character?" a friend says of her 13-year-old daughter. "Which boy do I want to not dance with her and break her heart because it'll be good for her in the long run?"

We want our kids to deal with loss or failure constructively — by evaluating why things turned out the way they did, asking themselves how they might do better next time, and ultimately bouncing back from the disappointment. At the same time, we want their suffering to be minimal. In striving for the latter, though, we may dilute their chance to learn resilience. "One of the main jobs of parents is building and protecting their children's self-esteem," says Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D., who studies how success is achieved. Unfortunately, she says, many parents today believe a good way to do this is to ignore their kids' failures or blame them on someone else. "It used to be that after a Little League game parents might say, 'When you struck out, maybe you didn't have your eye on the ball.' Now they're more likely to say, 'The umpire robbed you' " when there are problems. But the child who absorbs that lesson never learns to accept responsibility or withstand adversity. "Real protection," says psychologist Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., in her parenting guide, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, "means teaching children to manage risks on their own, not shielding them from every hazard."

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