While walking along a moss-covered swamp (there are a few of those in Florida!), the six-year-old boy who was with me looked out at the water and asked me, “Is that grass or water?” I knew that the boy expected me to tell him the answer, and he would then move on to something else. In fact, he might’ve never thought about moss-covered water again. With my background in child-centered play therapy, though, I knew that this was the perfect opportunity for the boy to engage in discovery that would provide him with evidence that he is competent of figuring things out on his own. So, instead of answering the child, I responded by saying, “Oh, so you want to see if that is grass or water. I wonder if there is a way you could figure that out.” The boy paused, realizing that I was not going to give him a quick and easy answer, and then his eyes lit up. “I have an idea!” he said. “I could throw some of these rocks and sticks onto that grass to see if water is under there.” He started gathering up a few rocks and sticks and walked over to the edge of the swamp. He threw the first stick and it landed with a thud onto the roots of a sapling that had made a small island. He seemed quite focused; he got a large rock and threw it toward the center of the “grassy” area. There was a huge splash. The boy gasped and exclaimed, “It’s water! I figured out that it’s water!” I knew from the excited, proud look on his face that this discovery would be one that he would not forget soon. He learned much more that day than what was under the green moss; more significantly, he experienced his lived competency as an individual.
Over recent decades, there has been a lot of talk about the self-esteem of children. Many well-meaning parents praise their children frequently in the hopes that their children will believe them and feel good about themselves. The problem is that children do not necessarily believe what they are told, at least without evidence. They do, however, believe what they have experienced and seen for themselves.
True self-esteem is based on a child’s self-assessment. Instead of running to the closest adult—most often a parent or teacher—to ask, “Do you think my picture is pretty?” confident, self-assured children will pause to reflect on what they like (or not) about the picture they just finished drawing. Children who seem desperate for external validation (“Are you proud of me? Did I do a good job?” etc.) are vulnerable and feel dependent which sets the stage for even further problems.
Parents can support and promote real self-esteem in their children by using Encouragement vs. Praise and allowing their children to explore the world around them as much as possible—even if it’s a little messy sometimes! Through this process of exploration (and self-discovery), children learn what their strengths and challenges are, and they learn to like and accept themselves for exactly who they are.