The following is Part 3 of Developing Self-Esteem: Challenge Them, written by Oak Meadow’s co-founder, Lawrence Williams.
Respect and appreciation provide the underlying support that a child needs, but challenges provide the fulcrum through which self-esteem is developed. Challenges enable a child to develop inner strength, which is an essential component of self-esteem. By facing and conquering small challenges, children develop the inner strength to face and conquer larger challenges and, ultimately, to conquer the challenges that face us all as human beings. Without challenges in life, children never have the opportunity to invoke the inner fire that is the true source of self-esteem. However, presenting children with challenges is something that must be approached intelligently and with caution, for it can easily become distorted and become a detriment rather than a benefit. The following guidelines may be helpful:
Provide Appropriate Challenges – Although something is gained just by the struggle itself, if children are constantly faced with challenges that are beyond their capacity, they inevitably fail, and this tends to diminish, rather than increase, self-esteem. The real benefit of a challenge lies in the opportunity it provides for the child to dig deeper and bring forth more inner strength, enough to overcome the obstacle and succeed. Thus, we must provide experiences that are difficult enough to offer a challenge, but not so difficult that failure is inevitable. As children grow in strength and expertise, look for new challenges that are up to their new capacity. Admittedly, this is an art, but it is one that becomes easier with practice.
Talk About It – Children are very open to the idea of applying themselves to a challenge to help them increase their inner strength, but you have to present it to them in a way that is relevant to their stage of unfoldment. For some children, you may put it in imaginary terms, and relate it to a particular fairy tale they enjoy (“Remember how the prince had to lift the heavy stones to build the wall? Well, this is just like that…”). For older children, you can begin to talk in symbolic terms (“Remember the story I used to tell you when you were little about the prince fighting the dragon? Well, whenever we struggle to do something that is difficult, it’s just like fighting a dragon inside us. If we give up, the dragon wins, and we become weaker. If we complete the job, we win, and we become stronger and more skillful at fighting the dragons inside…”). Don’t make it a lecture, but just a heart-to-heart talk between friends. Gradually, these talks can become real in-depth discussions of some pretty extraordinary things.
Teach Basic Strategies – For certain kinds of tasks, children may have the will to do it, but they just don’t know how. When this happens, they sometimes will say, “I can’t do it” when what they really mean is “I don’t know how to do it”. However, teaching strategies means more than just explaining how to do the job. Often, particularly if the job seems overwhelming, it means showing them how to break the job down in smaller tasks that are less intimidating. Once again, you can use analogies to make it more relevant to them (“Sometimes, if the dragon is real big, you can’t kill it all at once; you have to tie up one leg, then another, then another…”). Learning strategies that can be applied to many different kinds of tasks is very important, for they can apply this knowledge in many ways for the rest of their lives.
Provide Encouragement and Support – Every challenge requires children to struggle somewhat, and nothing helps in this process more than receiving encouragement from those you love and respect. The extent of the support that you offer can vary widely, depending upon the age of the children and their capabilities. For younger children, you probably will need to actually do it with them, then withdraw your participation gradually and in a non-confrontive manner (“Oh! I just remembered something in the kitchen! You keep going and I’ll be right back!”). However, when you do this, make sure that you do come back, or they will get distracted and gradually begin to distrust what you say. For older children, you may have to help them get started, and then check in from time to time to see how they’re progressing. When you do, always provide encouragement on their progress.
Give Them a Chance to Struggle – Often, parents want to protect their children from all uncomfortable experiences. Although one can appreciate the compassion behind such sentiments, rescuing children from all uncomfortable experiences serves to weaken them, rather than strengthen them. Of course, this must be tempered according to children’s stage of unfoldment. Younger children develop inner strength by struggling to control their bodies and develop their coordination, and this is best accomplished within the confines of a protected, nurturing environment rather than exposure to the “real world”. Exposing your children to harsh outer experiences doesn’t develop inner strength, it only forces them to develop superficial outer defenses to protect themselves. However, as children grow older, they need to gradually replace the protection of the parents with their own individual awareness. Ultimately, self-esteem arises when we get in touch with our own inner fire, for this gives us a sense of confidence in our own capabilities and our own inner worth as human beings. A sensitive environment and a loving, supportive family can open the door to self-esteem, but only through confronting and overcoming our own weaknesses as individuals do we contact the inner fire that makes us whole, and that gives us a sense of self-esteem that is based upon a knowledge of our worth and our capacities as human beings.