Self-esteem: Who Gets the Most Attention?

two-children-homeworkDear Dr. Linda,
My sister has two wonderful kids. Cole is 12 and Samantha is 9. From the day Cole was born, it was “Cole did this” and “Cole did that.” Even after Samantha was born, it was all about Cole.

Once they started school, it got worse. Cole does very well, but Samantha is an average student. He receives one award after another, is in advanced classes, on the honor roll, etc. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great kid, and I love him, but I feel for Samantha.

As my sister talks and talks about Cole, Sammy just sits and listens. I mentioned this once to my sister, and she replied. “I pay just as much attention to Samantha. She’s good at art and I always put her art work up. I can’t help it if Cole is so smart.” Isn’t this going to affect Sammy’s self-esteem? Aunt Lisa
Dear Lisa,
What you’re describing happens in many homes. Parents, usually without meaning to, label their children. One is the smart one, one is the athlete and one is good in art. Maybe one has a learning disability. Without saying it, they infer that the athlete and the artist aren’t as bright as the child who does well academically.
Does this affect their self-esteem? Probably, but does depend on how the child perceives what the parent is saying and doing.
A child’s self-esteem comes from how they feel their significant others think about them. In a child’s life, their most important significant others include in this order: mom, dad, close relatives, teachers, and then eventually peers.
If Samantha believes her mom and dad think she’s smart and just as wonderful as Cole even though she doesn’t do as well in school, her self-esteem will be fine. But, if she feels her mom and dad think Cole is smart and she’s not, her self-esteem will be harmed.
Mom saying she’s a good artist may or may not help her feeling of self-worth. If she knows that mom and dad think that high grades are more important than art, then her accomplishment in art won’t help her feeling of self-worth.
Of course, accomplishments and success in academics or art will raise self-esteem too. However, it can’t be emphasized enough how mom and dad’s words and actions and eventually teacher’s words and actions affect a child’s feeling of self-worth.

How to Improve Children’s Self-esteem

  1. When parents speak, ignore a child, frown, or say nothing, children perceive messages parents don’t even know they’re sending.
  2. If you’re proud of your children, don’t assume they know this. You need to let them know you’re proud through words and actions.
  3. When speaking to your child, use constructive language, not destructive language. Avoid saying things like, “Well, I knew you wouldn’t get a good grade on your book report.”
  4. Never compare one child with another. Statements like “I do like you your art work, but I wish you could get the good grades Cole does in math” defeat the faint praise the art is getting.

Many children who do well in school and their self-esteem based on continuous praise by mom and dad have a difficult time when their grades slip because of a difficult course. They don’t know how to deal with failure.

For children always used to getting an ‘A,” a “B” or a “C” in a course can mean failure. Many of these students blame everyone else. They don’t realize they’re struggling in a hard course. And can’t accept that it’s okay not to understand something or not to get an “A”.
Your sister has to understand that she might be hurting Samantha by putting Cole on a pedestal. She also has to understand that because of constant praise, Cole may not be learning how to deal with failure.

Dr. Linda Silbert

P.S. Get more parenting tips to help your kids succeed in my book, Why Bad Grades Happen to Good Kids

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