A strong positive self esteem is not a superiority complex. People who have superiority complexes think they are better than others. Someone with a strong positive self esteem knows that he is better than some people in some things and worse than some people in other things. This gives him the emotional strength and grace to accept others for who they are. When we meet people who have a strong positive self esteem, they usually appear humble, comfortable with themselves, accepting of others; but strong enough to follow their own moral path, regardless of peer pressure. This is the type of person we should be helping our child become.
A child with a strong positive self esteem is less likely to be picked on by bullies; and if bullies do pick on him, he is usually stronger and more able to cope with them. Bullies, themselves, are people with poor self esteem. The only way they feel they can bolster their sense of worth, is to belittle and attack others. A bully can only feel good about himself by putting someone else down or by having physical power over them. Therefore the best way for society to slowly but surely remove bullying, is for us to work tirelessly to ensure that all our children develop a strong positive self esteem.
Well, if preventing bullying is as easy as building self esteem, why is it still such an endemic problem? There are two main reasons. The first is that self esteem develops from our interactions with our parents and emotionally-linked people from the day we are born. Ill-informed adults can make huge tears in a child’s developing self esteem. The second is that bullying creates its own reward and behaviour that is rewarded increases in frequency. By this I mean that bullying temporarily makes the bully feel good, powerful; it takes away his feeling of inadequacy. Because his bullying behaviour made him feel good, he will want to try it again. The bully only feels good temporarily when he bullies someone, so he needs to do it again to get that good feeling again.
These facts give us direction in treating the bullying pandemic. The immediate medication should be to ensure that the bully’s sense of power and attention are minimised. Removing him from his acolytes and reducing the attention he is given is important.
In school, this can be done by removing the bully from his usual class to a “detention” room, where he completes work assigned to him. During his time in detention, he should also be given tasks where he serves others or does good deeds. Each of these “services” should be rewarded with praise and positive attention and at the end of his time in detention the list of services can be read to the school assembly and he can even be given a certificate for “helpful behaviour”, before he is able to go back to his usual class. The bully is thus removed from attention for bullying and given praise and attention for socially positive behaviour. Repeat bullies, need more time in obscurity (detention class) and more tasks to help others. They may need to spend time after school to complete their work so that they can complete the required good deeds. It is important to praise the good deeds, even when they are done with a negative attitude. The wording of your praise is important too. Tell the bully “Well done. You really helped Mrs X by carrying those heavy books for her” rather than: “Ok, good job; pity about your sullen face”. In other words: your praise must specifically mention how the deed helped someone else and the praise must be done in such a way that it makes the bully feel good about what he did, even though he really didn’t want to do it.
Prevention is better than cure. Parents and teachers are key people here. Both have a very strong influence on how a child develops his self esteem; and, as I said before, strong self esteem prevents a child from becoming a bully and from being bullied. Developing self esteem is not a quick job, it takes the whole of a young child’s development and it begins by how the child sees himself reflected in the eyes of the important people of his life.
Here are some tips for developing self esteem of your children:
- Give praise easily; but make sure it’s meaningful. Simply saying “good job” every time your child puts pencil to paper, is not meaningful praise. Rather, wait until the drawing is complete and take note of how much thought and effort went in; then you can truthfully comment on how well he applied himself and how it therefore is really great. If your child is clearly not artistic and you cannot see what it is he has drawn, you should neither say the glib “good job” nor “Hm, not great”. This is the tricky one, here you need to engage with your child, find out what he was trying to represent, get a feeling of the effort he applied and give some supportive directions to help him. This is realistic praise! It also shows that you are interested and care and are prepared to put in effort yourself to help him achieve his goals. That is a positive message for a developing self esteem.
- Play and chat with your child. Children thrive on feeling wanted and when they can see you enjoy their company. Just remember that you do not need to spend large chunks of time together; that is not reasonable in today’s world, where you and your child have other responsibilities and demands. It is the quality of the time that is important. If your child feels happy, wanted and contented in short but frequent chats and games with you, not only are you building his self esteem but he will be more inclined to come and talk to you as he gets older and faces difficulties, such as coping with a bully.
- Discipline, direction and guidance. These are key words for parenting. A parent must guide and direct their child onto the right path. Discipline is how we show them what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour so that they can become positive members of society. An undisciplined child will quickly become ostracised. That will have a negative effect on his self esteem, even if his parents are happy to accept the behaviour. Equally, a child who is punished too harshly or too easily, will be nervous to trust his own behaviour, he will constantly be expecting retribution. This creates a negative self esteem.
- Respect is not only something a child must give his elders. It is a two-way interaction. Parents and teachers need to respect children too. Ofcourse children have less of life’s knowledge and you are the one whose job it is to direct and lead the child, so their opinions should not trump yours. However, you should still respect the child as a person of worth; a person whose feelings are important; and a person to whom you should apologise if you made a mistake that affects him. Showing your child that you can respect him and even apologise for your mistakes, while still maintaining a sense of your own self worth, is a powerful role model. He learns from you that a strong self esteem is able to see others as worthy and is able to stay strong even when mistakes are made.
- Let your child be himself. Don’t try to live vicariously through your child. While it is wonderful to share in the glory of your child’s success; it should never be because you pushed him. There is a subtle but very important line between supporting your child to achieve in something of his choice and pushing him to succeed for your glory. This may mean that we have to let our children opt out of sports or professions which we think they would excel in (or which we wish we, ourselves had). To develop a realistic self esteem he needs to find his own path, guided by parents initially but as he matures, he needs to make some path-finding decisions himself. This is particularly hard for parents, it means that we have to let go of the reigns but be there when the horse stumbles into a ditch. When he makes mistakes, if we retort “I told you so”, we damage his self esteem and give him the message that his decisions are useless. We would do far better to say: “I was afraid of this. What do you think you could have done differently?”. Then an open discussion can follow, which helps your child analyse his decisions and what went wrong as well as what was right with the decision. You help him develop his self esteem.
- Give him unconditional love. This does not mean that he can behave badly and get away with it. It means that you never stop loving him. He does not have to earn your love. If he behaves badly, you will censure his behaviour. He may make you very angry but it is the behaviour and not his whole being that you are angry with. It is his behaviour and not his inner self that he must change. A child who knows that he is loved unconditionally but his behaviour needs to conform to certain rules, is a child who will develop a strong positive self esteem and one whom bullies will avoid and he will feel no desire to become a bully.
Parents and teachers are just ordinary people and no-one is perfect. So we can all expect to make some big mistakes when interacting with the little people whose self esteem we affect. It’s not every little interaction that matters, it is the overall feeling of acceptance that each child has in the relationship that makes him strong, contented and happy to be himself. By: Sharon Stansfield
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