By Mac Bledsoe
When I first began to teach parenting skills, I named my
curriculum Self-Esteem Programs. I learned very quickly that using that
title was a mistake! It turned out that using the words "Self-Esteem"
caused more problems than it was worth. People had so many different
definitions, connotations, misconceptions, and preconceived ideas of
what was meant by the simple terms of self-esteem, self-image,
self-concept, and self-worth that I was saddled more with the task of
defining and clarifying terms than with teaching some effective
parenting skills. Not only did I have to redefine the terms but I also
had to overcome negative emotional reactions to those words. Many
thought I meant total permissiveness. Many thought I meant that parents
ought to try to alter outcomes for children so their children never
experienced disappointment. Many thought I meant that we must stop
evaluating the performance of children and throw "atta boys" at them
In particular, there were large numbers of parents who
held negative thoughts and misconceptions of what was meant by the term
self-esteem. The minute I used the term, so many parents believed I was
a person who advocated being soft, permissive, or undemanding with
children. That is the furthest thing from the truth, but once they
formed that opinion of me it was difficult for them to even hear the
So, from the very early days of developing our Parenting
with Dignity program, I simply stopped using those words. I have found
other ways and other words to convey the same concepts to parents. It
has worked very well because I seldom have anyone forming opinions of my
parenting information before they have heard it!
That being said, last week I was fortunate to meet some
great people in the Dallas, Texas, area who have developed a wonderful
program that is built around a concept of self-esteem that I feel is
truly worth discussing. Right now please avoid jumping to any
conclusions based upon your preconceived ideas of the intended meaning
of those volatile words. Please read on.
Since my very first days of working with children, it
has been my belief that way too many people associated self-esteem with
accomplishment or performance. All too many parents seemed to believe
that they could alter their children's self-esteem by altering outcomes
for them. In other words, many parents and educators seemed to believe
that they could protect or build self-esteem by taking down scoreboards
and using codes instead of letter grades or percentage scores for
grading student work. Some even mistakenly thought that it meant that no
students would ever fail a subject in school. Their opinion seemed to be
that if they could alter the outcomes for kids, then they could help all
kids to have positive self-esteem! My experience in teaching taught me
something very different.
What I was observing in my classrooms was that some of
the most self-assured and self-confident kids often were those who were
not academically accomplishing at a high level. On the contrary, some of
my students who were doing the most extraordinary academic work were
those who seemed to have the toughest time thinking well of themselves.
As a matter of fact, often it seemed that over-achieving kids were
driven to achieve by a low self-esteem!
It seemed that kids with a healthy self-esteem were able
to "feel good about themselves" in spite of their achievement and kids
with bad feelings about themselves could not achieve enough to right the
ship and "feel good about themselves."
This phenomenon seemed to hold true with adults as well.
Many adults seemed to be on a fruitless chase for the better job, the
better house, the better car, the next promotion as if grasping the next
"better" acquisition would finally create inner happiness… but it never
seemed to be enough!
On the other hand, as I met more and more adults in my
professional and private life, lots of them seemed to live happy and
fulfilled lives with few notable accomplishments and little in the way
of material wealth. Their sense of self-worth seemed to be tied to
something more internal than external.
As I searched for an explanation for this observation, I
realized that there were also many people with both great
accomplishments and great material wealth who were very satisfied with
their lives and who seemed to hold a high regard for their own
Further searching found that just as many people who had
not accomplished much nor amassed much of anything in the way of
material wealth were unhappy and held a debilitating and low sense of
Self-esteem seemed to somehow not be connected to
accomplishment! People seemed to be able to form their self -concept
independent of accomplishment, material wealth, and level of
The question then became, "Well, what is it that creates
or forms a person's self-image?" There had to be something that shaped a
person's sense of self-value. This search led to the formation of Rule
#4 in our Parenting with Dignity program. "It doesn't matter what you
say, it is what they say to themselves that counts!" The key ingredient
in what a child feels or thinks about him/herself is what they say about
themselves to themselves!
Further study led me to deduce that the key ingredient
in a child being able to think well of self was
love! Children, who were confirmed in the belief that they were loved
unconditionally, were children who were able to think well of
themselves, almost totally independent of accomplishment or material
wealth. That led to the formation of Rule #5 in our curriculum, which
is, "Send them a constant and continual message of unconditional love!"
Anyone who has heard me speak on this topic will know that I feel our
Rule #5 is the most powerful tool available to parents in their search
for ways to raise independent, self-fulfilled, and self-reliant
Now, let's get back to my meeting with the great folks
in the Dallas, Texas, area who have built the program for building
self-esteem to children. The Children's Center for Self-Esteem is headed
by the creator, Dr. Glenn Wilkerson. Their program is titled ARK (Adults
Relating to Kids). These folks have come to some conclusions about
self-esteem that are very similar to those that I hold, namely that
self-esteem is not very closely connected to accomplishment or
performance. I will not go into much detail about their program (You can
read about their program by going to their website:
I highly recommend that you do.) other than to say that their research
has found that what I have believed for so long stands up to scientific
study! They make the distinction that there are two components to
a person’s over-all self-concept: self- worth (which is fueled by
performance) and self-esteem (which is fueled by unconditional love). Their conclusion is that self-concept is made of one third
performance or accomplishment and two-thirds from unconditional love!
What does this say to us as parents? It says the same
thing I have been saying for years and believe even more strongly today.
The effective parent is not the one who insures success in performance
related endeavors for their children. The effective parent is the one
who provides a constant dose of unconditional love! It echoes precisely
what is repeatedly expressed in our Parenting with Dignity program… the
most effective tool at the disposal of parents lies in their ability to
express love to their children! (Please check out the ARK program for
some great parenting ideas.)
To parents of young athletes it says, "Your kids are
going to have lots of coaches, but you are the only parents they will
ever have. Let the coaches coach and you be the parent who is constantly
there to offer the unconditional love; in spite of the score."
To parents of students it says, "Your kids are going to
have lots of teachers. Let the teachers teach, be there to support the
teachers in every way that you can; but above all, be there with
constant doses of love in spite of the level of the child's
Love does not mean permissiveness! Love does set
boundaries. Love can be expressed in holding high expectations but above
all it must be unconditional and not tied to performance. Children have
families and homes as an arena to practice skills, attitudes and
performance. The key is, they are practicing. Some times they will reach
the pinnacle of their own expectations and yours. Sometimes they will
fall short, and perhaps very short. They will be disappointed without
your heaping on your disappointment too. What they need to know always
is that you love them through success and disappointment and are always
on their team to teach them how to turn a disappointing behavior, grade,
or score into something more positive.
Love is not just a word you say; it is something
that you do!
You can fake like you care but you can't fake being there.
Love is a participation sport!
And remember the time you feel least able to tell kids
that you love them is usually the precise moment their hearts are most
open to receive your message of unconditional love!
Express your love for your children.