Teaching Kids to Love Themselves
An interview with Dr. Christine Carter
My little guy was drawing a valentine, when suddenly, in frustration, he hurled his pen across the room and said, “I can’t do it!” His intense disappointment in himself was startling. Here we were, preparing for the day of love, and my boy was not treating himself lovingly. It made me wonder how we can set our kids up to have respect for their perceived “failures?” To treat themselves gently? To – well – love themselves? I turned to Dr. Christine Carter, for a few tips on how to help our kids be their own best valentine. — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC
When parents see their kids emotionally suffering, the first thing we might want to do is stop the pain. So, we might say something like, “Hey! Yesterday, you loved drawing on hearts! What’s happening right now?!” This sends a message to our kids that we aren’t listening to where they’re at right now. Kids experience the same activity, differently, day to day. We need to recognize and embrace what they’re feeling right now, and move forward from there. By asking them to ignore their feelings and focus on where they were yesterday, is denying the present moment — and the present moment is where our kids live. In fact, it’s the beauty of childhood. So, we parents need to give our kids emotional coaching, and help them broaden their emotional vocabulary. When they’re feeling frustrated, we first must say, “It’s okay that you’re feeling frustrated.” Empathy first. By modeling empathy, they learn to be empathetic. Furthermore, by giving them the permission to feel their feelings, we’re teaching them it’s okay to feel. By naming the feeling, we help them identify what they’re experiencing. By doing all these things, we’re performing an act of compassion. It’s great modeling, because as parents repeat this reaction to their kids’ emotions, the kids will learn to treat themselves with the same kind of empathy and compassion.
Young kids learn by repetitive action. You’ll see them working that puzzle over and over again, or writing their name many times. But of course, through the process of repeating whatever it is they’re practicing, they’ll make errors. Parents are usually great at supporting their kids’ “failures” when they’re learning to walk. Our little pre-walkers have very little judgement of themselves when they are falling down and getting back up again, and we parents have very little judgement of them as well. We know, in time, they will walk! The child learns to try and try again. This same attitude should be applied as they grow. The act of trying is the most important action for our young kids. I’m not talking about lowering the bar of expectations, rather, I’m talking about helping our kids take realistic steps towards whatever goal they wish to achieve. If we’re gentle on our kids, they’ll be gentle on themselves. When your preschooler is trying to write a letter for the first time, and perhaps notices that it doesn’t look like the letter you’ve drawn, and gets frustrated with his lack of ability, that’s when us parents say, “Awesome, you are trying. No, it does not look like Mommy’s ‘A,’ but I’ve been doing this for a long time! If you keep trying, then eventually your ‘A’ will look like Mommy’s. What you’re doing right now is learning, you’re trying, and learning takes time and practice.” By the way, it’s important to acknowledge that (in the example I used) their letter doesn’t look as good as they want. If your child is frustrated, and you say, “Hey, your letter looks great!” Your child will likely feel like you aren’t seeing the obvious, which could lead to more frustration, and a sense of feeling misunderstood. If we parents allow for the gentle process of learning, the pressure is off our kids to perform. They learn that their “failures” are attempts getting them closer to success. They learn to try.
A growth mindset
As we encourage our kids to keep trying, they develop a growth mindset. They develop grit — persisting in the face of adversity. Grit is not something we’re necessarily born with, it’s a skill that can be developed and encouraged. If children get stuck thinking they can’t do something, they might start feeling inept, and stop trying. They’re buying into a fixed mindset. We want to encourage our kids to have a growth mindset. Kids need to be guided to believe their success is based on their effort rather than their innate talents — which they surely have. They learn that practice leads to mastery. You can say, “You aren’t born knowing how to do everything. Everything that’s hard needs to be practiced. I know it’s frustrating to not do it as well as you like, but all these attempts will get you closer. The fact that you keep trying is a very strong/gritty thing to do.” As parents, we should watch our kids closely for emotional distress as they try things. We can encourage them to pause, and plan what to do next, instead of going into fight or flight mode.
Taking healthy risks
Kids are inclined to take risks all the time. Whether it’s jumping off that high step, or reaching for that branch just out of grasp. Really, it’s their job, because they inherently want to grow and taking risks is a primary way of doing that. Usually it’s we parents that discourage our kids from taking risks, and kids will stop taking those risks if their parents hammer in that message. We want to teach our children at a young age the act of courage. We can ask ourselves, will this risk help my child be a better climber, try a new food, or make a new friend? If the answer is yes it will, then we parents can back-off, and let our children stretch their boundaries of comfort.
Christine Carter, Ph.D. is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center as well as author of “Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.” Dr. Carter also writes an award-winning blog, which is syndicated on the HuffingtonPost and PsychologyToday.com.
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