This month, we all bore witness to the horrific extremes that some people will go to in order to avoid losing. Although no one wants to fail, the vast majority of us won’t turn to insurrection, violent assault, or malicious destruction of property to win.
Besides, for most of us, personal success or failure is not gauged by national elections, the stock market report, or the Super Bowl. Winning and losing happens in small moments throughout our daily lives. We all experience failure when we burn the toast, are late for a meeting, or eat too much dessert. We succeed when we have a good hair day, make it to the gym, or have a bonding moment with our teenage daughter.
Hands down, my husband, Francis, has the most self-esteem in our family. He nurtures his iron-clad ego by remaining in complete denial of his shortcomings, and celebrating himself daily. I, on the other hand, am one of those annoying women who can’t accept a compliment, point out my flaws, and minimize my accomplishments.
I recognize those tendencies in our children, too. Our son overcame symptoms of autism as a child but has a limited sense of social awareness, so he is generally secure and oblivious to judgement from others. Our middle child inherited Francis’ self assuredness, but our youngest struggles with confidence at times.
When Francis and I witnessed each child’s sense of self emerge during adolescence, it was hard not to panic. Knowing that parenting contributes to whether a person feels like a winner or a loser was daunting. Of course, we recognized our children’s accomplishments, and told them they were smart, funny, beautiful, and talented. But being a self-doubter, I wondered if I was making mistakes.
When I was in tenth grade, I came home one day with big news. Throughout middle school, my self image was skewed: Fat, desperate, goofy, not very good at anything in particular. But a small personal triumph in ninth grade (I improved from worst swimmer on the team to middle of the pack) instilled a twinge of newfound ambition.
“Dad, guess what?” I announced at dinner.
“What is it, Lee Lae,” my father said affectionately, between bites of Swiss steak. My older brother, the family super star, was a new plebe at the Naval Academy, and of course they were thrilled with his accomplishments. This was my chance to make them proud of me, too.
“I’m my homeroom’s new representative for Student Government Association. They voted for me!” I stared at my father, waiting for his reaction.
He scooped a forkful of potatoes dotted with peas and chewed, his eyes glued to his plate…another bite of steak…more chewing.
Finally, he raised his eyes and his fork, and proclaimed, “You know what you need to do? You need to become President of Student Government. That’s what you should do.”
My father meant well. He was trying to say that he believed in me, that I had the potential to do anything. But what my fragile constitution heard was, “You’re not good enough.” This simple moment had the potential to bolster my burgeoning sense of confidence, but instead, it reinforced my insecurities. In my adolescent mind, I had failed.
As parents, how do we encourage our kids to try, to improve, to practice, to achieve, without making them feel they aren’t good enough? Ironically, experts say that we must teach our kids to fail if we want them to succeed. Disappointments represent a learning experience, when children can develop coping skills, resilience, creative thinking and perseverance.
At the same time, parents should help kids build self esteem without showering them with so much praise that they become dependent on validation. Studies show that “[s]uccess leads to feeling good about yourself, not the other way around.” And one of the best ways parents can build a child’s self worth? To model confidence themselves.
I never did run for SGA President, but I survived the gauntlet of adolescence and went on to become a lawyer, a writer, a Navy wife, and a mother of three resilient military children.
I guess I am a winner after all.
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