Self-esteem has been the misused and overused mantra of pop psychology for more than a generation. Authentic self-esteem can be acquired only through individual actions, and cannot be given by another person as one would give a gift. Ironically, in the well-intended quest to have children with high self-esteem, too many parents today praise their children for anything and everything, thinking that this external validation will result in high self-esteem. Such loosely given praise does not create self-esteem, yet it does create a dependency on other people for feelings of self worth. There is an important distinction between praise and true love. Praise is conditional, i.e., it is given for a particular action taken. We praise our children for trying hard at school, for helping around the house without being asked, and for including the lone child at recess. These are noteworthy actions and behaviors that parents want to reinforce. Adults, too, relish being praised at work for a job well done, by our community for helpful volunteer work, or by our spouses and partners for a delicious dinner or a thoughtful gift. These are all examples of earned praise.
Love, on the other hand, should flow just because the person exists. We don't, or shouldn't, love our children more when they get an "A" on an assignment than when they get a "C." Although there may be times when we don't particularly like our children's behavior--everything from toddler tantrums to teenage defiance--we always love them. Likewise, a spousal argument doesn't necessarily mean the couple no longer loves each other. Even our pets receive our love; the chewed sofa leg or the shredded towel makes us angry, but we still love Fido or Tabby. Heck, my beloved cockatiel, Simon, keeps sitting on my hands as I type this, which I find both incredibly annoying and cute at the same time. True love is always unconditional.
Love certainly helps lay the foundation for self-esteem. Children who feel truly loved know that if they take a risk and it doesn't work according to plan, they will be no less loved. I have tried to provide this for my own children and I have been the very fortunate recipient of this unconditional love for thirty years from my husband, Mark. I have changed careers, tried many different art projects, and enrolled in some "interesting" courses, not all of which have turned out well. Not once in all these years has Mark belittled my attempts, regardless of the outcome. My personality is to take risks and not always conform to my peer's choices. However, being secure that I am loved makes it all that much easier.
Hopefully, I have given my adult children the foundation of love they need to take risks, try new things, and explore. Mark and I have always felt blessed with our children. When they were babies, we would watch them sleep in their cribs and discuss how wonderful they were. This was a conversation that never bored us. Twenty-one years later, we feel the same way. From that never-ending love, we hope they continue to grow in ways that suit them, and in doing so, take actions that will maintain and strengthen their self-esteem.
Now, if only I can get Simon to stop jumping onto my hands...