Tesugen

Your competent child #3

One of the most interesting chapters in Jesper Juul’s Your Competent Child is the one about self-esteem and self-confidence. These concepts are, although related, two completely different things, writes Juul: self-confidence might be fueled by self-esteem, but you can have great self-confidence but low self-esteem.

A few years ago, I thought about how I was very self-confident in some situations, while in others I felt that my self-confidence was very poor. I found that strange and wondered why the fact that I was very self-confident about my work didn’t seem to affect my self-confidence in other aspects of my life. After finding out more about the difference between self-esteem and self-confidence (for example from the book Reclaiming Your Life by Jean Jenson; see here), I realized that I have low self-esteem and that I had (consciously or not) tried to improve my self-esteem by gaining self-confidence in more and more different situations.

You know you have low self-esteem when your well-being depends solely or largely on external factors, such as whether other people like or dislike you, whether they treat you good or bad, whether or not you can impress them with your skills, and so on. You thrive on approval.

Juul writes that until some decades ago, it was seen as benefitting the child to constantly correct it: by pointing out the child’s “faults”, it would supposedly change for the better. Then this ideology was rejected and parents began to praise the children instead – which might seem like a better thing, but Juul considers it almost equally bad, saying that it’s essentially the same thing, only the other way around.

Some parents constantly praise their children for everything they do well, as if it would be required for them to keep doing them well – for example, when eating, telling the child how good he or she is for each bite; or, when putting on a sweater, praising the child when he/she doesn’t struggle. If I understand Juul correctly, this type of treatment would foster children that depend on other people to judge them; that simply doesn’t know for themselves.

So, perhaps you can say that self-confidence, for a person with low self-esteem, is improved by repeatedly listening to the judgments from other people, until he or she can rely on safety in numbers: “So many people have said that I am good at my work, so it’s probably right. On to the next area where my self-confidence is poor!” This certainly feels true in my experience; a sort of adaptive, feedback-driven process, which, after a number of iterations, makes the individual self-confident.

Again, if I understand Juul correctly, this feedback-driven process is used even for people with high self-esteem (although it might need fewer iterations, so to speak). As for self-esteem, it can also be improved; and it can probably also be described as an adaptive, feedback-driven process, but I’d say (and I’m guessing here, because Juul hasn’t talked so much about this so far in the book) that it involves lot more reflection on the part of the person that wants to improve his or her self-esteem. It has to do with getting to know yourself and beginning to depend more on yourself for your well-being than on others.

Juul writes that for parents, it’s essential to improve your own self-esteem as you guide your child to a healthy self-esteem. He talks about it as a mutual exchange rather than as a one-way transfer from parent to child. And in this mutual exchange, you can learn a lot about yourself if you only pay attention. I think there’s more on this later in the book, so I’ll probably get back to this later.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on November 25, 2002. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.

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