Tim had been a shy child, but when he turned 8, he blossomed and decided to contribute to his school paper. Tim explained to his mom, "I think I'm a good artist, and I could draw some cool cartoons for the paper to go with the stories." His belief that he had a skill, and his willingness to offer it to others, demonstrated a new level of self-knowledge and confidence.
During the early elementary years, children clarify their own sense of who they are and what they can do. They explore such questions as: Am I really as clever as my mom thinks? I know my dad loves me, but will others? Can I hold my own without help? How does being a boy affect how I behave? This is a time for kids to confront new situations and develop their skills and self-awareness; they're able to complete their personal jigsaw puzzle and see themselves more clearly. It's a great "window" for you to nurture and shield your child's identity and self-esteem.
6-and-7-year-olds are still relying on you to guide them. Around the age of 8, however, children typically become enviably optimistic and delightfully confident and trusting of both themselves and others. In turn, they seek more autonomy. After a year or two, because they are all trying to find their place among their peers, they discover that life is not so straightforward and their friends are not always quite so nice.
- Girls can become competitive over their looks, friendships, and even their grades. They frequently get down in the dumps about their supposed imperfections and the latest experience of spite. Boys like to vie to become pack leader and play for laughs in class. Increasingly, physical strength and sporting prowess are used to gain status, so smaller boys can feel left out. The earlier confidence becomes tainted by self-doubt.
- Girls say they feel good when: Parents and friends are supportive, treat them as equals and as responsible people, give reassurance and hugs, praise them, listen to them, notice helpful deeds or when something has been done well, and want to spend time with them.
- Girls can feel down because of: Sarcasm, criticism, unfavorable comparisons, and when they feel they don't have any special talent or look as good as they'd like to.
- Boys say they feel good when: Parents and friends give them positive recognition for things they're good at, appreciate it when they've tried hard, recognize and accept them as they are, want to spend time with them and do fun things together, respect their privacy, and don't tattle.
- Boys don't like: Pressure, being teased or belittled, being laughed at, being alone, or locked into a male role ("Your handwriting's neat — for a boy!").
Realize that identity and self-esteem are two different things. Self-esteem involves judgment and evaluation: Do I feel that I'm worthwhile? Identity, on the other hand, is purely descriptive, and relates to our sense of who we are and how we would describe ourselves: I belong to this family. These are my personal qualities. Before anyone can have self-esteem, however, they have to be clear about who they are, so identity is more fundamental than self-esteem and comes first. Here are two tips that can help your child:
- Encourage a strong sense of identity. Having a sense of belonging somewhere and feeling significant to someone is crucial to identity: By telling family stories about you, them, siblings or aunts, you'll give them a clear, common family past. And your child will truly feel he belongs to you if you take him out with you when you can. To increase his self-awareness, always say exactly what it is you see in and admire about your child: fun to be with, kind, adventurous, imaginative, loyal, determined, or having strong interests — not simply good or lovely. For example, "You're good at fixing things. Come and help me with this." Offer suitable choices, so he gets to know what he likes and wants, and learns to express it confidently. Play helps enormously, too. And, of course, by helping him build up a range of skills and successes, you'll allow him to see himself in can-do terms, not as an exasperating failure.
- Help raise your child's self-esteem. Kids get their first impressions of how likeable and capable they are from their parents, but from school-age onward, a clumsy teacher or hurtful friend can undermine good work on this front. This tendency increases between the ages of 8 and 10, because children are so desperate to be approved of and affirmed. If your child has a hard time with bullying, feels left out, or experiences an unsympathetic teacher, he will need extra support from you. He'll benefit from receiving more time and attention than usual, lots of unconditional approval and affection (so home feels comfortable and emotionally safe), and trust in him to do well.