Mirror, Please

I believe that one of the best things we can do for our kids is to acknowledge what is hard for them.

In our society, children are flooded with well-meaning attempts at boosting self-esteem. This was not always the case.   Starting in the 1960s, a Self-Esteem Movement began. It was going to be the magic bullet which would address every social issue from bullying to teen pregnancy that plagued our youth. Self-Esteem is still the focus of many programs and approaches used today, yet depression and anxiety in children, by some reports have increased. Now, I know that I cannot argue a cause and effect between the two. But, I think I have a strong case when I say that the Self-Esteem Movement is no magic bullet.

I don’t know about you, but my never-ending-journey towards being comfortable in my own skin has been comprised of some very necessary steps:

  1. Recognizing my weaknesses
  2. Accepting my weaknesses (not to be confused with complacency)
  3. Loving my weaknesses
  4. Realizing my weaknesses are also my strengths

We all have weaknesses. Our children have weaknesses. Yet, our kids are surrounded by constant praise. To be clear, I am not advocating that we never compliment our children or worse, that we only tell our children that they are lacking. I am, however, suggesting that one of the greatest gifts we can give is to hold up a properly functioning mirror. They can look in this mirror and recognize what they see, not some overinflated (or under-inflated) version of themselves which is impossible to sustain.

Kids are smart. They know they are not good at everything. If they are repeatedly told that they are good at everything, it doesn’t match up to what they innately know is true.  If kids feel they can’t show any flaws, that becomes an exhausting façade to maintain for the world.

In my classroom, I did my best to create a safe environment where sharing one’s “weaknesses” was not only ok, but was celebrated as a sign of strength. I made a habit of asking my 4th graders what was hard for them after a lesson. In the beginning of the year, no one would raise their hand. Their eyes would nervously shift to one another and then back at me as if to say, You are crazy if you think I’m raising my hand, lady.  But then I would start to describe a strong student as one who knew what was hard for them. A strong student was not one that everything came easy for; in fact, that student does not exist. As the year progressed, tentative hands would start to rise when I asked the question. By the end of the year, some kids were eagerly raising their hands to explain in detail which parts of the lesson confused them.   I can’t imagine that my approach helped everyone to feel more comfortable, but I’d like to think that it helped some.

When I am flooded by what is hard for me and I do get flooded, the best thing that someone can say to me is: It’s ok. I love you. I love all of you. The Theresa who doesn’t struggle is not a different person than the Theresa who does struggle. You are one whole person and I love every part of you.

I firmly believe that the well-intentioned Self-Esteem Movement has missed its mark. Instead of helping children to love themselves, we have inadvertently taught kids that they are lovable because they are good at everything.

I believe we need to be authentic with our children. Let’s not deny that some things are hard for them. In fact, I think we should help them get better acquainted with their weaknesses. And then, help them realize that terms like “strength” and “weakness” are actually fluid. Every personality trait that can be identified can reveal itself as both a strength and a weakness. Maybe someone is stubborn on a tough day, but decisive and confident on a better day. Maybe a student’s trouble with math leads them to an inspiring career in the arts. Maybe a tendency to shutdown out of fear of heartache can actually reveal an incredible amount of life-changing empathy for others. Maybe the flip side of lashing out at others is a strong sense of and passion for justice.

I say, let’s help our kids to know and love themselves in a true, unconditional way. It’s not easy, and there will be messy moments along the way, but let’s let them in on the Open Secret.