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Discipline and Self-Esteem

by Jane Nelsen, Ed.D.

Positive Disciplineby Jane NelsenJane Nelsen

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How can you give your children self-esteem? You can't. Self-esteem, or the lack thereof, is developed through life experiences and the decisions children make about themselves in response to their experiences. Children are developing healthy self-esteem when they make decisions such as:
  • "I belong."
  • "I am capable."
  • "I can handle the disappointments of life."
  • "I can learn from my mistakes."
  • "I know how to focus on solutions to problems."
  • "I know how to consider the long-term consequences of my choices, and I feel best when my choices are respectful to myself and others."
  • "I can make meaningful contributions in my world."
Common Discipline Mistakes

Permissiveness: What kind of discipline helps kids develop healthy self-esteem? First let's talk about what doesn't help: permissiveness.

When parents try to give their children self-esteem, for example through praise, they teach their children to determine their worth based on the opinions of others. Children might decide, "I'm good only if someone else tells me I'm good, and if someone tells me I'm bad, it must also be true."

Many mistakes are made in the name of love. When parents rescue, overprotect, and give too much, their children may decide, "I'm not capable. I can't handle disappointment. Others are supposed to take care of me and give me what I want."

Punishment: On the other hand, what is the long-term effect of punishment? Even though punishment may seem to stop the behavior in the moment, what are punished children deciding? Their decisions usually fall into one of the 3 R's of Punishment:
  1. Rebellion: "They can't make me. I'll do what I want."
  2. Revenge: "I'll get even and hurt back, even if it hurts my future."
  3. Retreat: "I must be a bad person." (low self-esteem); "I just won't get caught next time." (sneaky)
Most parents don't realize that children are always making decisions in response to their experiences. These decisions effect them for the rest of their lives -- even though they are not consciously aware of their decisions.

Discipline that Helps Children Develop Healthy Self-Esteem

Discipline that helps children develop healthy self-esteem is not punitive. Instead, it is discipline that involves children: in brainstorming for solutions, in creating routine charts, and in exploring the consequences of their choices (through curiosity questions). This way, children can learn from their mistakes instead of from imposing consequences -- which are really poorly disguised punishments -- to make them "pay" for what they did.

How does involving children in discipline help them develop self-esteem? Let's start with the example of creating a bedtime routine chart. Involve children by asking them what they need to do before they go to bed. If they are too young to write, you can make a list of what they say. Older children can write out their own list. If they forget something, like brushing their teeth, you can ask, "What about brushing your teeth?" Then ask them to put the list in order. Children feel more capable (an important ingredient of self-esteem) when they create the list themselves, instead of having a parent create it. Young children love it when you take photos of them completing each task so they can post the photos on the routine chart. The routine chart can be posted in a prominent place, and then it becomes the boss. Now, instead of telling children, "Get ready for bed," you will ask, "What is next on your routine chart?" And they get to tell you.

It is very important that you don't add stars or rewards when children follow the routine charts they have created. It isn't that children don't like rewards. They do. But they like feeling capable and competent even more. As soon as you give a reward, the focus is no longer on the inner good feelings of accomplishment, but on getting something from the outside. Rewards teach children to do "good" for what they can "get" instead of doing good because if feels good -- even if no one is looking.

Teaching Children to Learn from their Mistakes

Helping children explore the consequences of their choices can also help build self-esteem. When children make a mistake, most parents tell them what happened, what caused it to happen, how they should feel about it, and what they should do about it. This creates defensiveness, resistance, and a sense of guilt and shame. Instead, ask, "What happened? What do you think caused this to happen? How do you feel about it? What ideas do you have to solve the problem now?" These are just a few examples of curiosity questions that invite children to think and to take responsibility and accountability because they aren't being threatened. When invited to brainstorm for solutions, they are invited to learn from their mistakes, and to fix them when possible.

Parents can't give their children self-esteem, but they can help them develop self-esteem when they provide many opportunities for children to think, to focus on solutions that are respectful to everyone, and to feel capable. These qualities are the foundation of self-esteem. 
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Meet Our Expert
Jane Nelsen, Ed.D.
Family and Child Therapist
Dr. Jane Nelsen is a California licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and author or co-author of 18 books, including Positive Discipline, Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World, and 12 other books in the Positive Discipline Series, among others. She earned her Ed.D. from the University of San Francisco, but her formal training has been secondary to her hands-on training as the mother of seven and grandmother of 20. She now shares this wealth of knowledge and experience as a popular keynote speaker and workshop leader throughout the country.

Dr. Nelsen has also appeared on numerous radio and TV shows, including Oprah, Sally Jessy Raphael, and Twin Cities Live and is frequently quoted in parenting magazines.
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Positive Disciplineby Jane NelsenJane Nelsen

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