A girl sitting alone
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A girl sitting alone

Helping Young Children Gain Self-Esteem

Parents and caregivers can help their young children develop a quality that can support them all their lives: self-esteem. Self-esteem results from a sense of competence, which follows from making efforts that lead to a satisfying level of accomplishment, acknowledged by oneself and by other significant people. Self-esteem comes from finding out how to function effectively in one's environment and being encouraged in that endeavor by parents and other caregivers.

Playtime can help young children develop a sense of competence if it provides opportunities to explore within safe boundaries and offers play materials that fit children's abilities. Children also need time to pursue tasks of their own choosing until they have completed them to their own satisfaction.

The chosen activity may be as simple as throwing pebbles into a pond or as complex as building a block structure with a friend. What is important is that the child is making his mark on the world, making it different than it was before, and gaining a sense of his ability to effectively carry out an idea, solve a problem or get a job done. Many, many such successful experiences through the years add up to the confidence we call self-esteem.

Parents and caregivers can provide opportunities for success by:

  • Providing play materials that children can manipulate comfortably and safely. Materials that are too difficult, fragile, or unsafe can frustrate the child.
  • Allowing children to play and learn without adult interference or interruptions.
  • Having realistic expectations regarding children's capabilities. Children may develop feelings of inadequacy and an unwillingness to try new activities in the future due to unrealistic expectations.
  • Giving encouragement and guidance, and acknowledging accomplishments in specific terms: "You put on your own coat and boots today!"
  • Avoiding judgmental, general praise, which though well intended, can backfire and create anxiety, dependence and defensiveness. Telling John he's a good boy means you also have the power to call him a bad boy. Children will thrive in environments where they do not fear being evaluated, where they can make mistakes and learn from them, and where they do not need to always strive to meet someone else's standard of excellence. Thoughtful guidance which honors each child as a unique human being can help lay the foundation for the development of self-esteem, which can weather the later storms of life.

Source: Suzanne West, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, New York State College of Human Ecology, Cornell University. Parent Pages was developed by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. HD 24


Anna Steinkraus
Family & Community Development Program Coordinator
(607) 272-2292 ext. 145

Last updated May 16, 2022