Parenting Matters: Improving your child’s self-esteem

When you tell your child things like, “You’re doing much better,” or, “You’re on the right track now,” these are the kinds of statements that help your child believe in himself.

Even just simple comments like “awesome,” “hooray,” “superior,” “you’ve got it!,” “nice job,” “fantastic,” “wow!” and “impressive” all convey to him that you believe in him and that helps him learn to believe in himself.

As a parent, you have the opportunity each day to reinforce your child’s self-belief. Our reactions and words to them can give them a positive vote of confidence or it can lessen their feelings of self-worth. Think about what you are saying to your child each day. If your child’s belief in himself were based only on what your words and actions said to him today, how would he feel about himself? Your answer gives you clues on how you should be interacting with your children every day.

Find positives

Each day look for the positives in your child’s behavior. Focus on what is good about him. It is easy to overlook the many good things our children do and instead pay attention mostly to the negative. Keep track of the quantity of pluses versus minus and see how you rate as a positive parent.

If your child’s belief in himself is not very high and needs improving, you need to really work on it to help him. You may need to show him the improvement he makes. Showing him samples of his work or the different books he is reading might help. Even tape recordings of his practicing music or examples of work he has done on the computer would be another way.

When he is really trying, this needs to be reinforced. Comments like “You must have practiced” or “Every day you improve” help him to change his way of thinking about himself.

Ultimately, your child needs to believe you love him whether he succeeds or fails. You need to think about this to make sure you do care about him through his success or failure.

Be sure you compare your child’s work only with his previous work. You need to be careful to not compare him with his siblings or classmates. Competition can be stimulating if a child has a strong belief in himself but it can be totally debilitating to a child who has low self-esteem.

Find balance

At the same time you need to be careful to not reward your child for his success too frequently. Paying for good grades or even just giving him something each time he does well may send the message that you love him only when he achieves. So be sure to comment on his efforts and attempts whether they are successful or not. This is another way of showing him he is loved unconditionally.

Make sure there is plenty of opportunities for your child to succeed. Let him bake a cake; they almost always turn out good. Ask him to feed the dog. The dog will show his appreciation. Check his school papers from the classes he does well in and the ones he has trouble. Make positive comments about each of them. There will likely be something in each of his school papers that shows some improvement that you can point out to him. You may have to look carefully but it is worth finding and commenting about it.

As a parent or care provider for your child, you have an important role. It may seem like what you say isn’t important, but you are wrong. Your comments make a huge difference. Who else has such an opportunity to make a difference in an individual’s life?

Cynthia Martin is the founder of the First Teacher program and former executive director of Parenting Matters Foundation. Reach her at