Self Esteem

Ok, I have a confession to make.  For my first two sons, I fell into the self-esteem trap of parenting.  You know, the “you can’t praise too much” trap?  Or sometimes it is said, “Make sure you give 10 good remarks for every 1 negative one.”  I really thought the more I heaped on praise, the better my children would feel about themselves.  Or at least I thought, if I avoided a lot of corrections, they would.

Turns out, I was wrong.  Like most moms, I sheltered my firstborn and he is now the most bitter and grumpy of my children.  Actually, he’s not too bad but in comparison to my third and fourth children, there’s no comparison to be made.  They are always happy, and my first is always needing a pick me up.  My second born is not too much better although he has a melancholy temperament (and always has) so I try not to take his sadness too seriously.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in my typical homeschooling routine.  I have just started homeschooling in the last two years, and my kids follow a predictable line up: my firstborn starts off well but usually gets grumpy and frustrated with work, my second born is not totally happy but is very excited when he gets to do something “bigger” that his older brother gets to do (i.e. write a sentence!).  My third, who is only four and not kindergarten age yet, happily begs to work throughout the day.  And my fourth is too happy to care whether she gets a turn to work or not.   HA!

Some of this is surely typical of birth order and homeschool in general.  It’s hard to pioneer, it’s easier to follow.  And things become more fun with time.  But I am also sure that it is more than a homeschooling phenomenon… it’s kind of the same in every area of life.  Part of this is, I believe, due to the self esteem problem and the motivation style differences in my children.

For my firstborn, my husband and I were the typical parents cooing over the baby and over-obsessing about his developmental milestones.  He had some speech problems, so that made us all the more myopic.  We taught him and tutored him, we played games, we took him to specialists, he went to preschool etc.  And he had lots and lots of attention and praise.  Now at age 6.5, however, he is mainly externally motivated.  He’s motivated by praise and attention, but he has a hard time being happy when he doesn’t have it.  ANd like any child, the more they have, the more they want.  So school is difficult not because he doesn’t have enough character to stick with it–he does.  But it isn’t a joy to him, and that’s the hard thing.  Every parent wants their child to ENJOY learning, to be a reader, to get enthralled with some subject and just take off.  But he isn’t intrinsically motivated… yet.  He doesn’t see the thrill in making up a story, coloring a picture, or working on a project.  He just wants to get it done and then it’s over.  He likes learning of course, because he likes to be smarter than everyone else.  I think it makes him feel good to know things (as real self esteem should!).  But he doesn’t like or embrace the path to getting there.  It’s a battle.

In fact everything in his life is like that… if it’s not being monitored, it falls apart.  Very conditional, externally motivated ethics.  My second born, whom we did not lavish attention on, is slightly better adjusted.  But because he too had some special needs as a preschooler (sensory issues), he is also very hard to praise.  He has pretty good intrinsic motivation actually, and loves to get into science, art, or English.  But when I try to make him feel better about himself, it never works. I  can praise and praise.  I can encourage and encourage, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference. At 5.5yrs, he has a particularly salient perfectionism problem, and it is hard to get him to be happy with what he does.  It was like that when he was two and struggling with physical milestones, and all the praise in the world from me did not seem to convince him in his inner thoughts.  He’s mildly unconfident that what he does is good enough.

Now we come to my third and fourth children who, while they are far from perfect, are much more functional.  At least in the self-esteem department. I’ve never made an effort to praise them over and above—in fact, I’ve never worried about it—and they’re healthier!  They don’t seem hung up like their counterparts.  And I am sure letting the self-esteem education is part of it.  I’ve learned that the self-esteem really has to come from within.  It can’t be GIVEN or forced by an external party.  And in order for teh self-esteem to come from within, it has to be related to things the child can do for themselves.  So the more my children can do for themselves independently, the happier they are about it and the more intrinsically motivated they are to do it.  If I am happy about it too much, then I usurp their own happiness about it.  If I motivate it too much, then I usurp their motivation to do it.  There is a certain distance or disattachment that is important to healthy self esteem development.

That doesn’t mean I can be neglectful.  Being a passive and aloof parent will not yield a child who feels loved and praised.   But there is a certain KIND of distance which is very important to give a child, which I apparently did not give to my firstborn.  I tried to give it to my second born more, but he was hung up in a stage where he felt inept, and that went counteracted fora  long time.  So the kids have to experience victory for themselves, and they have to even initiate these victorious things.  The problem with my firsborn is that he doesn’t initiate things for himself—I have to be the initiator—so he can’t feel as happy about it.  That is one cycle of external motivation that is hard to break.  The areas where I don’t have any input (i.e. his lego building) tends to be the areas where he really excells and has his own fun.   ANd the more I push him to learn, even though he resents it at first, eventually becomes points of victory for him too because he gets more competence as he learns.

So it’s a tricky thing, but I just wanted to pass on the small bits of wisdom I’ve so far learned the hard way =)

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