As parents, we want our children to feel good about themselves and to know their abilities, strengths, and ultimately, their place in the world. We call the feelings about yourself “self-esteem” and the knowledge about yourself “identity.”
Throughout childhood and adolescence, children develop an awareness of themselves and others — their likes and dislikes and a sense of their capabilities. When children develop a strong sense of themselves, they are more likely to be successful in school and in their friendships. This positive sense of self is built through supportive relationships with family members, other adults and children and members of their community. Children develop a positive identity through open conversations, being valued by peers, experiencing supportive relationships and settings, and seeing other people with similar traits and identities be appreciated and valued.
I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.Lewis Carroll
To help children achieve this positive identity, parents can focus on four areas of development: personal power, self-esteem, sense of purpose and a positive view of one’s personal future.
1. Personal Power
Personal power comes from experiences where you try something challenging and are successful. Children can then look back and reflect on the challenge and how they met it. We encourage parents to help children challenge themselves to achieve something through their own hard work, whether that’s learning to play a musical instrument or learning about a new subject in school. When children find a particular interest, encourage them to pursue that interest in depth so that they can learn that diving into one area results in both new knowledge and great a sense of accomplishment.
A sense of personal power, or self-efficacy, also comes from learning to be assertive in communicating your needs to others. Being assertive means being confident and saying “yes” to opportunities that are both healthy and challenging, and saying “no” to situations that are unhealthy or lack respect or kindness.
Self-esteem refers to the feelings we have about ourselves. People with high self-esteem can cope with challenging situations. Adults, including parents, teachers, family members and mentors play a key role in helping children develop positive self-esteem by seeing the child for who they are and supporting their unique views, opinions, talents and accomplishments.
Through open dialogue, adults can let children know that their opinions are valued, even if those opinions are different from those of other family members or friends. Setbacks or failures at one activity can turn into growth opportunities where children reflect on what happened, change their course of action and even redo the challenge in a new way. Some children benefit from verbal affirmations that remind them of their skills and abilities. Others benefit from being able to pursue their interests and goals and earn recognition and praise from adults for their specific accomplishments and efforts.
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3. Sense of Purpose
People with a strong personal identity also have a sense of purpose. They find meaning in their lives and know they can make a unique contribution to the world around them. Children begin to understand that their actions affect others at an early age. When children are kind to others on the playground at school, they learn to see that their actions not only help that individual child but also help create a school climate that is safe and secure. Also, when children learn about injustices in the world such as racism or discrimination, or world problems such as childhood poverty or climate change, encourage them to take a stand with others to counter those problems. Finally, when children engage with their families in community service activities, they build empathy toward others and a sense of their ability to impact the world.
People with a strong personal identity also have a sense of purpose. They find meaning in their lives and know they can make a unique contribution to the world around them.
Parents, teachers, mentors and faith leaders can engage children in the big questions about the meaning of a “purposeful life” and how each person can make their family, community or world a better place. Eventually, this sense of purpose can lead to choosing a profession or career that reflects that sense of purpose.
4. Positive View of Personal Future
Developing a positive view of one’s personal future takes place by children learning from adults and other role models who show that a hopeful future is possible, even in the face of adversity. Encourage children to “dream big” and delve deeply into their unique personal interests. Expose children to career paths or professions that are linked to these dreams or aspirations. They can help children outline a realistic path to see how they can reach that goal with schooling and finances. For example, children and teens interested in justice issues can learn about what the U.S. attorneys at the U.S. Department of Justice do to fight crime and injustices.
As children grow into their adolescence, their ability to think more abstractly about the future increases. This makes the preteen and teen years a good time to encourage in-depth exploration of their interests with a focus on future goals, even if those goals might change by the time they are adults. A focus on a positive future also provides protection against negative events that can lead to cynicism about the future. Parents and children can learn together about people who faced enormous challenges and turned those events into a cause for change or improvement.
The development of a positive child identity is an ongoing process in which parents and other adults play a key role. They help children learn and embrace their unique qualities and their place in their family, community and world. The developing identity will take different forms as children and teens experience the world, but with encouragement, all children can shine.
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