Childhood development experts used to believe that if we taught our kids to have good self-esteem, they would grow up to be more self-confident and resilient. The problem with that is that boosting self esteem means that you are actually teaching them to compare themself to others, often in a competitive way. Competition in children is widely discouraged in many leading alternative school systems such as Waldorf and Montessori. Competitive behaviour and even competitive sports among young children actually can harm self-esteem and makes having compassion or empathy for others more difficult. When a child tries to be a “winner”, there are also “losers”, and having a child feel that they have “lost” is extremely damaging. Where self-compassion is a way of relating to your self — especially when times are tough — self-esteem is a measure of yourself against others. In order to keep self-esteem high, you have to convince yourself you are better (or the best), either by denying your faults and pains or by putting others down, and usually both.
Constantly offering praise to your children has also been shown to cause more fragile emotional states and narccism. Rather than praising your child, you should think about praising (or evaluating) what they have done, not themselves. Saying “you are a great artist!” when a child makes a nice looking bit of artwork leaves them open to having their own self criticized the next time a picture doesn’t work out as well. Rather, the approach should be, “I really like the colours you used in that painting”. This separates the person from the action. Children need unconditional love, and a strong attachment bond to feel secure and be resilient. Conversely, “punishing” your child by separating them also creates long lasting resentment and can cause them to pull away from you into adolescence (e.g. using timeouts, a mass media and often harmful technique that has numerous negative and long-lasting effects).
Kristin Neff is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. She is involved in psychological research on self-compassion and wrote “Self-Compassion” (William Morrow, 2011), released this April. This field of research now has psychologists finding that self-compassion may be the most important life skill, imparting resilience, courage, energy and creativity.
But how do you create children with strong self-compassion?
1) Be kind to yourself
Modelling and imitation is the most important way your children learn from you. Self-compassion is hard, but if you can understand your own emotions and use this in a positive way, then your children follow your example (see Gordon Neufeld’s book “You are your child’s first teacher”).
2) Teach kids the truth about life
Show children that everthing doesn’t always work out. Avoid sugar-coating the truth, and help them dwell a little longer on situations which aren’t going their way. Don’t be in a rush to “fix” everything. Sometimes, it’s best to just recognize and talk about the emotions they are experiencing, rather than solving their current dilemna (“I see you are very frustrated this morning. That’s hard isn’t it?”).
3) Ease into self-compassion slowly
Help children become more mindful of their own emotions. Talk about what they are feeling and why before looking ahead to what to do about it. This will help them recognize why they feel the way they do, and will foster more resilience in the future.
4) Judge the behaviour, not the child
Separate the action from the individual. Don’t tell your child that they are great when they do a somersault, since when they can’t do a cartwheel, they will take it personally.
5) Model future behaviour, don’t punish the past
Compassionate discipline means understanding and listening to the child first. Without empathizing, you won’t understand truly where your child is coming from.