In conversations about bullying, we often hear the term “self esteem”. Some people think it’s the bully who would behave differently if only they “had more self esteem”. Others think the target of bullying wouldn’t be targeted if only they “had more self esteem.”
This thinking is intuitively correct. And, it works in two ways:
- A person who has healthy self esteem doesn’t as easily or as often sink to a critical level of social insecurity — the point where it seems necessary or acceptable to protect or advance their position by pushing others down in some way. The child who is successful at something — and secure about that — is less likely to bully others. This is the bullying prevention value of building self esteem in youngsters. Get this right, and a large part of the problem will disappear.
- A person who has healthy self esteem is more resilient when they experience variability of their status with a change of context. The child who is successful at something — and secure about that — is more emotionally resilient, even if they are targeted in some other context. This is the bullying protection value of building self esteem in youngsters. Get this right, and a large part of the problem will become less acute.
What is Self Esteem?
The “self” part of “self esteem” is that it measures the self (not someone else). The “esteem” part is about value. All value is understood through comparison to something else — an ice cream cone compared to a slice of pizza, for instance. When calculating esteem of the self, we make a comparison to arrive at a conclusion — a basis for how we feel about our self.
If we measure the self compared to others, we discover that we can be “ahead of them” with either of two strategies:
- Build ourselves up
- Push the other(s) down
It’s not complicated math to understand pushing others down is sometimes quicker and easier. This opens the door to bullying — managing social status by demonstrating someone else “less than” oneself.
But, once we push Ricky to the ground, why don’t we just remember that we can, feel good about it, and get on with our day?
The problem is the yardstick: Someone else is literally the standard of measurement. For the insecure person, the measurements aren’t durable. So, bullying is repetitive — must be repetitive.
In the “building the self up” category, we use a different yardstick. We don’t care how many people have climbed Mt. Everest. We esteem anyone who has done it, and those who have also value their own achievement. Can you best your own time in a one-mile run? You’ll have to test again soon, but the only way to do that is to try to run faster because calling yourself bad names won’t change your time…
What Can I Do?
Start by understanding all self esteem comes from measuring the self against something or someone. Realize how giving awards for mere “participation” will do more harm than good. At some level, the kids know it’s fake, so it won’t produce the preventative or protective effects we want. It also cultivates the habits of low-paid, low-performance, and poorly-esteemed wage slaves — people who expect to be paid just for showing up.
Children intuitively know these things, so faking it to try to build them up will only make them feel even more pitiful — and make you seem dishonest. Don’t be a liar to children. In most cases, they can detect a lie better than an adult.
As always, question how you are doing this emotional skill: How do you measure your own achievements — by measuring yourself against another person — or do you have some other measures? Be honest with yourself and become aware of what you are doing. Ask yourself what other ways it would be possible to measure achievement. Try those other things on to see how they feel. Do this by keeping notes for a week.
Experiment with different ways of measuring achievement and overtly question the metrics of everything — especially achievement and progress. This exercises and models the skill of critical thinking — a critical part of bullying prevention that I will address in detail in a later post.
It is important NOT to measure mere effort. While a good thing to encourage and build, effort alone isn’t actual achievement. Kids intuitively know this, and measuring effort alone does not train or build perseverance. On the contrary, focusing mainly on effort reduces tenacity.
Instead, to build persistence, we need the reward of measured progress. So, measure the progress being made — even when a race is “lost” to a faster runner. For instance, if your kid isn’t running as fast as someone else, measure how much faster your kid is than their own last-week’s time — or even their own best time. You will probably have to participate in timing and helping them keep stats.
That measure of progress is empowering. It is useful in learning how to run faster. It encourages more work toward a greater goal, and builds self esteem through measurable achievement.
Model this thinking in the way you evaluate your own performance and self esteem. Model carrying that sense of confidence into other areas of life where your performance or status isn’t as high. This generalization of self esteem is very useful in both preventing bullying behaviors and protecting against them.
Help your child build habits demonstrated to build self esteem and confidence, as well as happiness and success:
- Consistently model this way of thinking by sharing your own challenges and measures of progress with them.
- Consistently ask your child about what they’ve done recently that they are proud of.
- Consistently give them opportunities to answer with measures of progress they’ve made in challenges worthy of stretching their abilities.