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The best gift you can give your children

Not long ago a friend of mine had a baby. As she looked out the window at rows of babies lying in her bassinet, she was amazed at how similar they all looked. Yes, some had dark hair, some had curly hair, and some had no hair at all. Some were larger or slightly heavier than others, but for the most part they were all more or less the same. What would she be like, she asked me, if they came back as adults for a reunion? What would we find?

Both research and common sense tell us that we would find that some people took life by the tail and made the most of it. Some would be successes in business or art. Others would be exceptional parents, teachers, lawyers, nurses, etc. Statistics also tell us that we would find others whose futures would have taken quite a different turn. Some would have drug or alcohol addictions. Others would somehow be unable to make their lives work.

I began to think about what caused these incredibly mixed results: How is it possible that all these children who started out so alike ended up so differently? Oh, I guess some of the discrepancy could be down to genetics, but what about the rest? A fairy flew around the room with magic dust and sprinkled some but not others? No, not unless reality was created by Walt Disney.

Over the past 25 years of working with people in my therapy practice and as a parent educator, I have found that the single most important factor that determines whether children grow up to be happy and successful is their self-esteem. A boy’s self-esteem affects every area of ​​her existence, from the friends he chooses, to how well he does in school, what kind of job she looks for, and even who he chooses to marry. But what exactly is this illusory, intangible thing called self-esteem?

Simply defined, self-esteem is the sense of being lovable and capable. When these two qualities are in sync, a child has high self-esteem. Children first need to know that they are loved and accepted for who they are. So with this as a foundation, your natural impulse is to take that love and learn to contribute it to the world in a constructive way. It’s not hard to realize that self-esteem is the best gift you can give your children.

As you work to give your child this wonderful gift, the most important thing to understand is this: Self-esteem evolves in children primarily through the quality of our relationships with them. During the first years of their lives, you are their greatest influence. Later, teachers and friends enter the scene. But especially early on, you are with a capital I.

We are mirrors for our children

Because children see parents as authority figures, they think that the way you treat them is the way they deserve to be treated: “What you say about me is what I am” is a literal truth for your child . Consequently, when children are treated with respect, they conclude that they deserve respect and thus develop self-respect. When children are treated acceptingly, they develop self-acceptance; when they are loved, they conclude that they deserve to be loved and develop self-esteem. On the contrary, if they are mistreated or abused, they conclude that they deserve it too.

Parents are, in effect, mirrors: what we reflect back to our children becomes the basis of their own image, which in turn influences all areas of their lives. To put it another way, who our children are is not as important as who they think they are.

Shower your children with love

Passing on our love to our children is the number one priority in building a healthy sense of self-esteem in our children. It should come before any other aspect of the parenting process, such as setting limits or correcting behavior. Your children need to know, first of all, that no matter what they do, even if you don’t like or approve of their actions, you will still love them.

Children need tangible demonstrations of your love. They, like adults, need to be told “I love you” directly and often. No one ever came up to me at the end of a parenting seminar and said, “Could you tell my husband to stop telling me that he loves me?” We can never hear “I love you” too often. Our children do not automatically feel loved simply because they are part of a family.

Your unconditional love should be the foundation of your relationship with your children. Unconditional love is loving your children for who they are, not for what they do. Our children should not have to earn our love, acceptance, or respect. It is your birthright and should be given freely.

Unconditional love requires loving your children no matter what you expect them to be and, more difficult, no matter how they act. By this I do not mean that we like or accept inappropriate behavior, but with unconditional love we love the child even at times when we do not like what he does.

I’m not going to pretend this is easy. it is not. Unconditional love is not something you will achieve every minute of every day. But, it is the thought that we should have in our hearts every day. The underlying message of unconditional love is, “I love you no matter what you do. I am committed to you 100 percent and will be here for you through thick and thin.” These types of messages are foolproof builders of healthy self-esteem.


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