What Is Self-Esteem in Children? - Definition, Measures & Development

Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

Read this lesson for an overview of self-esteem in children, including a definition of self-esteem, two competing theories, and an example of how to successfully build self-esteem.

Self-Esteem Defined

We've all seen a child beaming with pride when they've accomplished a task they've set out to do. Maybe it was simple, like crossing the street by themselves, or maybe it was complex, like getting first prize in a science fair. Either way, children (and adults) feel good when they accomplish a goal. This helps to build their self-esteem and make them feel confident and optimistic about themselves.

So, what is self-esteem? In the 1960s the psychologist Nathaniel Branden defined it as 'the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness'. A more simplistic definition might be to say you have self-esteem when you are confident in your abilities and are prepared to face and overcome obstacles. Children with high self-esteem have an excellent ability to understand their own abilities and what challenges they are capable of meeting. They tend to have an optimistic worldview and don't internalize failure. When a child with high self-esteem fails at something, they practice harder and try again rather than becoming depressed and giving up.

Branden promoted helping a child's self-esteem by protecting them from failures and providing unconditional praise. This led to the self-esteem movement, which lasted through the latter half of the 20th century and told parents, teachers, and psychologists to constantly provide children with positive reinforcement and rewards simply for participating. Unfortunately for Branden and the children of the self-esteem movement, the basis for this movement has proven to be simply untrue. Children who are protected and lavished with praise tend to show little effort in mastering new concepts and actually have lower self-esteem.

A child with high self-esteem
Child with high self-esteem

Building Self-Esteem

If constant praise and a lack of failure don't build self-esteem, then what does? Branden saw people with high self-esteem who were successful and assumed they were successful because of their self-esteem. We now know that he got it backwards - people have high self-esteem because they have succeeded when challenged!

Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, has argued that three qualities are necessary for children to build self-esteem. First, they need to engage in activities that are challenging. In much the same way that you won't get large muscles by lifting a small weight, you need to challenge your abilities to grow your self-esteem. Second, through challenging themselves the child needs to learn to overcome the frustration that comes with not having instant gratification. Finally, after demonstrating persistence and overcoming the challenge, the child eventually succeeds and will eventually gain mastery of the task. This process leads to the child gaining self-esteem about not only their ability to accomplish this specific task but also their ability to overcome challenges in life.

Seligman, contrary to Branden, saw building self-esteem as a series of meeting and overcoming challenges. Success in meeting one challenge leads to an increase in self-esteem, which then makes a child more comfortable challenging themselves in other areas. As the child succeeds in more areas the cycle continues.

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