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Leverage for Life: Helping your Child Develop a Healthy Self-esteem

by Carolyn MacInnes

"Give me somewhere to stand, and I will move the earth."

Archimedes, the great mathematician, theorized he could move the world with a single lever. It didn't have to be an expensive, heavy-duty lever. Didn't need to be attractive or equipped with bells and whistles. It just had to be in the right spot.

When it comes to developing self-confidence, the same concept often applies to kids. If children grow up in a caring, supportive home, they're likely to thrive despite the weight of their life struggles, social position, or financial status. Kids without rules, role models, and reassurance, by contrast, may collapse under even minimal pressure.

As parents, we can provide "somewhere to stand." We can make our home the right spot for them, where they can grow a healthy self-esteem and a bright vision for their lives. With our help, they'll learn to effectively balance the pressures of life. They'll gain the self-assurance to defeat the obstacles that impede their success. They'll realize they can help "move the earth," changing it for the better.

Need some practical ways to cultivate your kids' confidence? Think SELF-ESTEEM:

Set a good example. I once heard a woman in a dressing room tell her pre-schooler, "Mommy's getting so fat!" (Ask any eating disorder specialist: Comments like this are poison– particularly to young girls.) To instill confidence, we must exhibit confidence. We need to be able to accept and laugh at ourselves. Only then will our kids realize foibles and foul-ups aren't fatal.

Enforce clear rules and limits. Imagine playing a game where the rules change with each roll of the dice. Not fun – and certainly not fair! Unfortunately, many children feel this same frustration when their parents send mixed messages about how they should behave. But when we're consistent in our parenting, kids learn the rules and take pride in their ability to follow them.

Love unconditionally. A gangly boy in a little league uniform steps up to bat. His father cheers from the stands – until the boy strikes out. As the two drive home in silence, the father's disappointment is palpable. So is the son's despair. This sad scenario deeply disturbs us in movies and books – so strive to ensure that it remains a fictional scene for your family. Through success or failure, assure your child that your love for him remains steadfast.

Feel free to show affection. Sometimes, a hug is worth a thousand words. In joyful times or tough ones, spontaneous displays of affection may mightily express what your voice cannot. Insecure kids often feel repulsive and ugly; they may have a hard time believing anyone would want to be close to them. Assure them with your hugs, kisses and cuddles that they are anything but "untouchable."

Express belief in your child's abilities. Addie's mom attended every ballet performance – but she always brought a novel to read. She barely looked at the stage, even during Addie's big scenes. Despite her love for dance, Addie dropped out after a year. As parents, it's critical that we "sit in the stands." But to build lasting confidence, we must also embrace our children's interests, as well as demonstrate our faith in their abilities.

Supply challenging chores and chats. Kids love to surprise us by doing "grown-up" things. They delight in our looks of astonishment and pride when they clean up after themselves or offer a clever bit of dialogue. Actively provide opportunities for them to polish their conversation skills. And assign tasks and activities that transcend the simple, ordinary jobs they've mastered. Be sure to applaud effort, not just success.

Teach problem solving. Next time your child faces a problem, revel in this "teachable moment." Rather than rescuing kids, help them determine their options and weigh consequences. Offer suggestions, like, "I know a kid in your situation who tried _______." Youngsters confident in their problem-solving abilities grow up to be wise, decisive adults.

Establish a safe home environment. Home is our sanctuary – a refuge from our most magnificent failures. If kids find themselves in abusive, angry or otherwise dysfunctional households where they lack a sense of acceptance, they'll likely exude cowardice rather than confidence. However thorny your home life may be, avoid criticizing, ridiculing or shaming your child.

Empathize. When your kids melt down over trivial losses or failures, take a mental journey back in time. Remember when you missed a line in the school play and your ego was shattered, but your dad just chuckled at your anxiety? Try a different approach with your kids. Sincerely acknowledge a child's feelings and offer hope for the future.

Mitigate negative self-talk. When a child expresses frustration with his performance or berates himself, redirect his destructive comments. Offer honest, affirming advice and observations. Help him avoid sweeping "always" and "never" statements and encourage him to put setbacks into perspective.