Today’s Western parents are often conflicted about how to impart self-esteem to their children. This is a fairly new phenomenon as parents of past generations never thought about it much and yet the majority of kids grew up with a healthy sense of their own worth. Somehow in the last 50 years we’ve become confused as to how this important component becomes a part of our child’s life.
We’ve come to believe, with encouragement from mental health professionals and professional educators, that we can give it to them or protect something that was there at birth. But self-esteem is not ours to give and it is not our child’s birthright. It is something they earn.
In a thought-provoking book entitled, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, author Matthew Crawford (Ph.D. from University of Chicago and motorcycle mechanic) offers us an honest assessment of the topic:
“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.”
As part of his premise, Crawford argues for a hands-on approach to education. As a Youth Development Specialist in the 4-H program, the concept of “learning by doing” formed the basis of my own work with kids for many years. We both learned that building tangible things or developing useful skills is a first step in gaining true knowledge. It is also the cornerstone of beginning to understand oneself.
Crawford distinguishes between actual skill development and the cultivating of an appreciation of a skill. For example, learning to play an instrument is a skill. Listening to music on an expensive sound system is not. In the first example, the student can become proficient and start down the path to self-esteem. In the second, he has room only for empty boasts about what he thinks he knows or what equipment he owns.
There are many things a child can become proficient at, become known for, deserve praise for, and ultimately make use of to develop a healthy self-confidence. But, these are things of his own doing and making. I cannot bestow self-esteem upon my kid. Constantly praising everything won’t do it. Protecting him so he is never judged by the real world does not shelter his self-concept, it destroys it. Quite honestly, the only thing I can do as a parent to ensure a healthy self-esteem is to help my child develop useful skills so he can earn it for himself.
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