It turns out psychologists may have gotten it wrong. Over the years, there has been a tremendous emphasis in our society on building kids' self-esteem. Psychologists now think we should be teaching children how to develop self-compassion instead.
The problem is that self-esteem is often developed by social comparison, meaning it requires a person to feel special and superior to others on a variety of dimensions. Kids feel good about themselves when they get the A, win the game, receive the trophy and sometimes even by putting other kids down to make themselves feel better. But this constant comparison needing to be better than other kids instills a belief that it is not ok to be average. When things don't go well, feelings of superiority slip and self-esteem takes a nose dive, leaving kids vulnerable to anxiety, insecurity and depression.
What's the solution?
Teach children how to develop self-compassion. Self-compassion is learning to extend understanding, compassion and encouragement to yourself when things don't go your way, treating yourself the way you would a close and treasured friend. Research shows increasing self-compassion has all the benefits of self-esteem but without the downsides. Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion reduces anxiety, lowers feelings of embarrassment when you mess up, and is associated with steadier and more consistent feelings of self-worth.
There are several ways to help foster self-compassion in kids, including:
In a world driven by distraction, teach your child how to be in the moment. Some ways to do so include:
Help them notice things around them, savoring positive experiences when they occur. Teach them how to be present with themselves.
Encourage them to take 3 deep breaths when feeling stressed, overwhelmed or distracted to return to the moment and back to their center.
Help them develop awareness of their thoughts and feelings, to not ignore them but to also not become overwhelmed by them either.
Help them learn how to observe non-judgmentally their internal experience, understanding that they don't have to believe every thought they think, especially the negative ones, and that emotions, like ocean waves rise and fall if you just let them be.
Help your children identify those moments of struggle and difficulty as opportunities to practice self-compassion.
Validate their experience, such as saying, "oh, this is a difficult moment," or "that was really tough to go through." Make them aware of what they are feeling by labeling their emotions "oh, you're sad," or mad, scared, hurt, etc. and talk through their reactions.
Kindness begins when we understand that we all struggle. Teach your children to talk kindly to themselves versus being critical. This builds a stable sense of self. Self-criticism isn't helpful and only produces a variety of negative consequences, including feeling badly about oneself. Next time your children start saying something critical, point this out to them and then teach them to reframe these thoughts into something positive and forgiving. The way we communicate with our children establishes a blue print for how they will eventually communicate with themselves. Talk to them in a non-critical way. Teach them how to self soothe during difficult times. Say to a small child, "Let's practice hugging ourselves like mom and dad do to make you feel better. You can do this for yourself when you feel bad to remember how much you are loved." Teach older children to put their hand on their heart to self-soothe when upset. These small gestures help them value and feel good about themselves just as they are no matter what is going on.
Teach kids how to be kind to others. Ask what they did in their day to make someone happy, find volunteer opportunities to do together as a family, encourage your kids to write thank you notes, recognize regularly when someone did something nice for another in the family.
Compassion for others — common humanity
Remind your children that they are not alone in experiencing this difficult thing, other kids feels the exact same way. Everyone struggles, feels inadequate, does not get approved of, or fails at something in life. It's part of our common humanity. This helps normalize what a child is going through and reduces shame and embarrassment over mistakes made and not feeling good enough.
Encourage them when they see people throughout their day to offer them compassion. Teach them to wish others well, saying silently or verbally to others, "may you be happy, healthy and free from suffering." When our sense of self-worth is based on being a human being intrinsically worthy of respect, rather than on achieving certain ideals, our sense of self-worth is much less easily shaken. And that will make for a very good school year ahead.
This school year, instead of seeking to become extraordinary and special, encourage your children to find the wonder and marvel of the ordinary. How to sit with sadness in themselves and others, the comfort that a touch of a hand can provide, the warmth of compassion for themselves and others struggling. Teach them the simple pleasure of wishing someone else well, happiness and ease. When they learn to be full present with these simple moments, then the extraordinary aspects of their life will unfold naturally.
It's so easy to focus on what's wrong. Teach your children to focus on what's right. Studies have shown that children who cultivate gratitude in their lives have better social relationships and do better in school. Make gratitude a part of your daily conversation. During dinner or as part of a bedtime ritual, ask children to share three things they're grateful for about themselves and their lives. Ask them to reflect on why these things occurred to deepen their appreciation and understanding of the good things in their lives, including aspects of themselves, and not take it for granted.
As we talk about mindfulness, kindness, compassion and gratitude, what we're really talking about is putting more love out in the world. And that can be one of the most meaningful gifts we can give our children.