Over a period of their growing up years, right through adolescence, children keep receiving feedback about themselves from significant others. While primary mirrors (parents) remain constant, other mirrors get added in. The importance of different mirrors changes according to the developmental stage of the child. Once a child starts schooling, teachers become primary mirrors, then from around 3rd or 4th standard to 7th their academic performance or any extra-curricular performance becomes the primary mirror. From 8th onwards, peers and their acceptance plays a huge role in the development of self-concept. Finally, by 25 years of age, when people are in relationships and get into the world of work, both, the kind of partners they have and the kind of work they get affects their self-concept. Both, personality and self-concept kind of crystalize and take a consistent form by 25 years of age. They do remain dynamic post that but largely what happens in adulthood is more a reflection of what has formed by then.
In this entire process of the formation of self-concept, what is self-esteem then. Simply put, self-esteem is how much we hold ourselves in esteem. How much do we like ourselves, linked to which is how much do we value ourselves. While the child’s self-concept is developing, as a natural parallel process, his/her self-esteem also develops. This happens in the following manner.
As a child, adolescent and young adult, goes on assimilating, the mental image of who he/she is physically, intellectually, socially and emotionally, he/she also starts assimilating a value around each concept. As people start verbally or non-verbally giving feedback about whether a particular trait of theirs is good or bad, the forming sense of self also assimilates all the good and bad value judgements around their traits. As a cohesive whole, all the good are pluses and bad are minuses. As a sum total of each of them, if the total of pluses is significantly more than the minuses, the person will like himself/herself and will have positive self-esteem. If the pluses and minuses are almost the same, a person will be okay with himself/herself but may not have a very strong relationship with themselves. If the minuses are more, a person will not like themselves and will always be unhappy either with themselves or their surroundings or with others in their life.
The irony of self-concept and self-esteem
You all must be noticing that while self-concept and self-esteem are the foundation stones of a person’s entire future relationship with his or her own self, relationship with work and relationship with others, they form at a period of time in a person’s life when they are largely powerless and dependent on others. While both are malleable and people can rectify their self-concept and enhance their self-esteem, once formed, it mostly takes a lot of time for people to first become aware and realise that there is something wrong in their relationship with themselves. Secondly, once crystalised, it takes considerable effort to undo our self concept and esteem which are deeply set in our psychological world or DNA.
Role of Parents, Teachers and Care Givers
What therefore is very important is that parents and teachers become aware of how consciously or unconsciously they might be treating the young ones around them. If they could take some simple measures, those would go a long way in a child developing a healthy self-esteem:
- Listening to our young ones. Though they may have less understanding than us, listening to them makes them know that they are important. What they think and feel and express is important.
- Spending time with them. Time is the only resource in our life which is limited. When we give our young ones a part of that, we give them something which we truly can’t earn back.
- Being polite to them. Even a new born has self-respect, anything that is hurtful, abusive or violent damages their boundaries and their sense of self. When children are handled with, treated with and talked with care, they know they are valuable and precious.
- Enjoying who they are. Though our children are born from us, they are a distinct personality in their own right. So rather than looking at them and trying to turn them into an extension of us, if we can take a step back and enjoy who they are, then this informs them that they are unique and likeable as distinct individuals.
- Reprimanding actions and not labelling their person. This is extremely critical because disciplining is a part of a care giving role, it is important that parents or teachers reprimand a behaviour eg. ‘You are very angry at present and are using bad words, which I am not liking’ rather than saying ‘You are a bad boy’. While this sounds very simple, it has a profoundly different impact. When we reprimand an action, the child knows that the action is not acceptable and needs to change, but they are loved. When the child is labelled, they absorb it as their ‘being’ or ‘self’ having a flaw but very often have no clue as to what is bad about them.
I know that this write up has come up as a theoretical one but as promised to myself and to you all my readers, I am simply allowing my pen to flow and write to you what feels natural at that point in time.
I hope this write up is useful in some ways for you…