How to teach your kids healthy self-esteem

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Self-esteem, low or high, is not inherited; it is learned. And it is learned from the first and most influential teachers-Mom and Dad. But what if I don't have good self-esteem, you worry. There are simple yet profound ways to teach your tot that she is valued, wanted, and respected. At this tender age, you can already nurture her understanding and respect for herself.

If your infant is under six months, try doing these things every day:

Hold her when you feed her with a bottle. She must feel loving arms around her, to see you giving full attention to her nutritive need. Propping up a bottle with pillows to feed a baby increases the risk of ear infection, and it's pretty impersonal too. For most of us, eating is a social time. We enjoy our food more when in the company of loved ones.

Immediately respond to her cries. Infants cry when they are in discomfort-not to infuriate you. When they need food, warmth, or quiet, their primary way of expression is through the mouth. By responding quickly and calmly, you teach your baby that her needs are recognized and valid. And you are helping her develop a trust relationship with you. In fact, trust is one of the major developmental tasks in the first year of life. Parents who always respond with impatience or anger send the message to their child that she is a nuisance. This causes her to grow up feeling apologetic for her needs. You may know an adult today who begins nearly every sentence with, "I'm sorry to disturb you, but . . ."

When you pick up your baby, name her feelings. Something like, "You're feeling tired now," or "That noise frightened you," is descriptive. It helps your little one gradually recognize and name her emotions. A core component of self-esteem is the ability to be in touch with and express one's emotions. With teaching like this, later in life she'll more likely express herself with words instead of actions.

Look in the mirror together. For now, she just sees another image-not another baby. Over time she will come to understand that the image looking back belongs to her. Be sure to smile when you look in the mirror as this is contagious as well as relaxing.

Frequently repeat your baby's name. Hearing her name helps her become accustomed to its sound and attach it to her identity.

Read aloud to your baby. "But," you say, "she can't understand a thing I'm reading." True. But she sure enjoys you wanting to be near her, your soothing voice, your touch, your undivided attention. By reading to her, you casually nurture a love for the written word while sending a message that she is a lovable human being.

Several times each day, place her on the floor. Giving her floor space to freely move about will encourage her to use her muscles and build her upper-body strength. This respects her growing body and need to explore.

When your baby is 6- to 12-months old, it's helpful to:

Begin naming her body parts to her. Some parents make up songs involving the names of the body. Some parents like to play simple games like "I Got Your Nose." The value of doing this is to teach your tot her uniqueness apart from you.

Use positive discipline such as redirection. One mother asked me when she should start slapping her son's hands. Why discourage curiosity and a drive to learn? When your baby reaches for something that is off limits, direct her attention to another acceptable object. Babies of this age have a short attention span, so it's easy to engage them in other, more appropriate activities.

Stick with routine bath, bed, and meal times. If possible, try to do the same things with her every day. Although it sounds boring to us, babies feel secure and thrive when their life is comfortably predictable.

Allow her to hold her own cup and drink. While this may be messy, it gives her practice. Soon she will feel capable of doing things for herself. Feeling capable is another key component of self-esteem.

Encourage your baby to feed herself. Don't worry about food in the hair, on the table, and on the floor. Learning self-care practices such as feeding herself is a skill that gives her dignity. If given this opportunity, any baby can feed herself by her first birthday.

Expect your child to grab, taste, poke, pour, and dump everything she can get her hands on. These are normal, healthy behaviors of a thriving baby driven by curiosity. And because she is doing these normal things, be one step ahead by safety-proofing her play areas. This will allow her to safely explore and begin testing her independence without constantly hearing, "No!" "Don't," "Put that down," and "Stop!"

Sing songs and play simple games like pat-a-cake and peekaboo. If you don't know many, check out nursery rhyme and songbooks from the public library. "How does this teach self-esteem," you ask. By proving that the world can be a welcoming place to live and learn. With your tender teaching, your baby will grow up with the wonderful knowledge that she is lovable and capable, and will be confident in life.

Excerpted with permission from The Birth to Five Book: Confident Childrearing Right from the Start by Brenda Nixon (Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2009).