These days all of us parents are bombarded with media of all kinds about how important it is for our children to possess that hard-to-define feeling we call self-esteem. I’m hoping this article will take some of the mystery out of that term. I hope it will clarify for you why some children who come from very similar parenting can “turn out” so differently: one with obvious self-esteem (self-confidence plus many skills). This article, of course, isn’t the whole “ball-of-wax” but it does offer thoughts about some of the most necessary ingredients in self-esteem.
People of all ages, kids and adults too, grow more and more confident as they develop (1) positive personal qualities, (2) relationship processes, and (3) practical life skills. You’ll see what this comparison of Jay and Hannah teaches us and why it’s so important to learn from it.
Home and Parent’s Background.
Alicia, Jay’s mom, was nineteen and, Joe, his dad, only twenty when Jay was born. Both parents had dropped out of high school but had their GEDs. For Jay’s first few years, both his mom and dad worked in fast food places.
Gradually, Alicia trained to become a dental assistant and Joe acquired some construction skills. After working many other short jobs, Joe worked for quite a few years at a window and door company, installing. The entire time Jay and his brother, Anthony, were growing up, money, food and clothing were scarce; so life wasn’t comfortable for either of the boys. Jay started working a few weeks after he turned sixteen and has been working since except for a week off once a year for an inexpensive vacation.
Constant conflict permeated the atmosphere in Jay’s home; Alicia and Joe fought all the time. They fought mostly because Joe controlled his wife and the two boys so tightly. Not only was his dad an angry, controlling person but he had violent tendencies, too. Every door in their little house had a hole in it because Joe had lost his temper and that’s how he acted it out.
Needless to say, neither Jay nor Anthony spoke back to their parents. Too afraid.
It wasn’t unusual for the boys to be left alone, with Jay in charge, from the time he turned six years old. The boys weren’t allowed to go to friend’s houses or to have friends over until their high school years. Neither of the boys was allowed to drive until they were eighteen. Jay rode his bike to work every day, winter and summer, no matter the weather, from the time he got his job until he left home at 19.
It’s amazing to me that Jay isn’t bitter about his upbringing. Yes, he was angry and resentful a lot of the time but usually coped in positive ways and, just as important, without complaining. He’s not angry any more.
Jay lives in an apartment with Robin, his fiancee’ and has a very responsible job as a customer service person at a company that supplies policeman and fireman with everything they need for their jobs except their cars. Robin is hard-working and very responsible as well. So far, they’re doing fine.
Jay’s parents are divorced but he’s friendly with them and sees them when either he or they call to have lunch or just visit.
Jay, 22 years old.
Positive personal qualities.
Knows what he wants.
Extremely active in all facets of his life; proactive instead of reactive.
A thinking person, analytical.
Hardworking: willing to put in long hours, persistent in reaching his employer’s goal.
Likes order and cleanliness.
Positive relationship processes.
Listens carefully and actively.
Good social skills; fits into various groups well.
Observant of others and can discern early whether or not to trust.
Respectful of others and expects respect back in return.
Uses clear, direct language.
Can say “No” when he needs to.
Can apologize when he’s made a mistake.
Can negotiate and compromise when he needs to.
Ability to commit to people and projects.
Practical Life Skills.
Can start, follow through and complete a task.
Makes successful decisions.
Manages his personal resources: time, energy and money well.
Can organize his belongings and schedule.
Home and Parent’s Background.
Paige, Hannah’s mom, was thirty and Paul, her dad, thirty as well, when Hannah, their oldest child of four, was born. Both Paige and Paul had college degrees. The whole time Hannah was growing up Joe had a well-paying, secure job in a large corporation where he worked for thirty years. Paige had taught high school until Hannah came along and then stayed at home with the kids until their youngest went to middle school. She worked part-time from then until her youngest graduated from high school and then she went back to teaching full-time and continues today. They’re both 62 years old now.
Hannah, unlike Jay, had all the necessities she needed and more, as did the rest of her siblings. Here is where the differences between Jay’s and Hannah’s homes end.
Stormy, noisy, and filled with argument describes the atmosphere in Hannah’s home. Just like Jay’s. Paige and Paul argued about nearly everything but mostly on how to raise their children. They each thought they were right and they each thought they knew best so the other one should give in. Neither ever did.
Unlike Jay, from the time Hannah could form words, she joined in the arguing. She UNconsciously decided that the power each of her parents displayed was something she wanted, too. So, she argued with each of them about anything that came up; she wanted to decide for herself. And, as soon as she could, she resisted physically, too. At a pretty young age, she started throwing things, tearing clothes and damaging toys while continuing to argue, argue and argue some more.
Hannah has been living out of her home since she was 18. She’s had a series of low-paying jobs, just drifting. She met, fell in love with and married someone very like herself. Because neither of them have “adult living” skills, they’ve really struggled with jobs and money. And, in fact, Hannah’s parents have supported them off and on since Hannah graduated from high school. They’ve had better times, though, in the last year. Rick, her husband has a job now loading medical supplies onto corporate jets. Hannah has graduated from cosmetology school and will get a job soon.
Hannah is 35 now and she and her husband have good relationships with her parents and her siblings.
Hannah, 35 years old.
Positive personal qualities.
Wants to grow emotionally and gain life skills.
Generous with her time and energy with her friends.
Respects others and expects respect in return.
Growing more courage.
Negative personal qualities.
Passive instead of Active.
Directionless, uncertain, anxious from middle school on.
Handles her anxiety by over-talking with friends and family.
Doesn’t sustain a job; works only to “get by.”
Reactive instead of proactive in most situations.
Positive relationship processes.
Comfortable with friends.
Observant of others; trusts few people because she’s fearful.
Respectful of others.
Uses clear, direct language when not defensive.
Can acknowledge it when she’s made a mistake.
Some negotiation and compromise skills.
Practical Life Skills.
Disorganized with belongings and schedule.
Likes cleanliness and order but doesn’t use her time or energy to act them out.
Doesn’t actively set goals; passively waits for opportunities to present themselves.
Can start a project but cannot follow through or get closure on it at home.
No money management skills.
All of the information above is here to show you, as best I can with a subject this complex, is how children from very similar emotional atmospheres can decide differently at a very early age how they will respond in their families.
At about three months old babies start to watch parents and/or siblings and they become more and more sensitive to how the home atmosphere feels. By the time Jay and Hannah reached five-ish, they had each made their choice as to how they would handle themselves and the others in their homes.
Jay decided to comply with his dad’s “rules.” At the same time he was complying, Jay watched and learned the relationship processes that were in the family. The four of them camped together. His dad had a good sense of humor, so there was good-natured kidding going on. The four of them had fun together. And, Alicia and Joe ferociously emphasized education so Jay really paid attention in school and at home. He has a long list of practical living skills. My point?
Very early on Jay decided to GO ALONG with his parents.
Once he had made that UNconscious decision, his time and energy
was spent observing and learning about people and life in general,
both in his family and, later in the larger world community.
Hannah, on the other hand, decided to resist her parents. She spent her entire eighteen years arguing with them about everything: house rules, clothes, helping in the family, friends, and activities. Her brother, Paul, Jr. was born when Hannah was two and they, too, argued about everything until, finally, when Hannah turned eighteen, Paige and Paul asked her to move out. They called her the “family trouble-maker.”
My point? Very early on Hannah decided to RESIST her parents.
Once she had made that UNconscious decision,
her time and energy were spent on engaging with her family members
in a daily struggle for POWER. Her UNconscious emphasis was
on “staying out of her parent’s control,” not observing and
learning relationship skills or practical living skills.
You can see that at thirty-five she still has many fewer skills than she needs to cope well in the adult world.
I know this idea is hard to accept for two reasons:
- We don’t think of babies, toddlers, or young children as “deciding” their emotional life postures. And, if we did, we’d say they do it at a later age.
- Most of us parents think we teach our children how to be. No. Our children come into our homes and decide for themselves whether to comply or resist. We provide the setting; they decide how to be with us.
Can we influence their decision? Yes!
- Provide a home atmosphere that’s largely calm, including when there’s disagreement. Let them see you “work it out” without putting each other down.
- Use respectful talk with each other and your child. Negotiate and compromise with your child as often as you can.
- Watch for resistance from your child. Children can be subtly manipulative, so resistance isn’t always obvious.
- Become aware of your own relationship skills. Most of us parents aren’t even sure of what we’re modeling for our child because we haven’t really thought about it. We do daily living automatically.
- Become aware of your practical living skills. We cope with daily adult life automatically because we’ve been doing it for a while. We’re usually not aware that: we’re using good skills every day all the time and almost everything we know, we learned in our childhood from watching our parents or other adults. We have a lot of skills we’re not even aware of. Think about it.
I want you to remember: most people think that parenting is the toughest job there is. I agree with them; it certainly was for me. So, go easy on yourself as you practice some of these suggestions.
Do You Have a Resistant Child or Do You Know One?
Warmest wishes until next time,
Thanks so much for reading. And, if you think anyone you know would like this article, please forward it.