But can you really teach self-esteem to a child? Actually, say experts, you can start the day you bring your newborn home from the hospital. And although you might not see the results of these simple efforts for a few years to come, you'll be giving your child the basic tools he needs for a happy and healthy emotional life.
1. Be ThereFrom the very beginning of your baby's life, you're boosting her self-esteem simply by responding to her basic needs. Each time you feed her when she's hungry, change her diaper when it's messy, or hug her when she cries, you are telling your child that you care about her and love her, which makes her feel worthwhile. "Probably the single most important thing parents can do is observe their infant and be responsive to what she needs and as many of her wants as is reasonable," says Polly Greenberg, a child/parent/teacher development specialist based in Washington, D.C., and author of Character Development: Encouraging Self-Esteem and Self-Discipline in Infants, Toddlers, and Two-Year-Olds.
You may worry, however, that catering to your infant's demands will spoil her. "When Kaya wanted to be held -- and she liked to be held a lot -- I picked her up," says Chesapeake, VA, mom Tara Hargrove. "But my mom always told me that I gave in too quickly. She said I should have let Kaya cry at times so she wouldn't get spoiled."
Most child development experts say that you can't give an infant too much love and attention, and holding back could be psychologically damaging. "You can't spoil a baby by answering her cries," says Suzanne Dixon, M.D., M.P.H., chief medical editor at the Pampers Parenting Institute and professor emeritus at the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine. "Studies have shown that if you don't respond consistently to your child, she'll become anxious and cry more because she'll be unsure as to whether or not you understand what she needs."
But by the time Baby is 4 months old, you can give her a chance to learn how to soothe herself. For example, if she's upset because she wants to be rocked to sleep, wait a bit before picking her up to see if she can calm herself. And once your infant becomes mobile, she'll start to need solid limits, for both her physical and emotional well-being. "We all need limits," says Dr. Dixon. "Without them, a child can become angry and irritable because she won't know what's expected of her." If you indulge your 1-year-old by allowing her to do everything she wants, she may have a hard time learning that other people won't always let her have her way. And if others withdraw from her because she behaves disruptively when she doesn't get what she wants, she may begin to feel unlikable.
Dr. Dixon says that one of the keys to setting limits is clarity. If you silently pull your child away from an electric socket without telling her why, she may misunderstand your intentions. And for a young child, it's important to help her find a viable alternative when you say no -- so steer her toward her toys instead. It's also important to be consistent. If your child is demanding a toy at the store, for example, don't give in "just this once" to quell her cries; instead, take her outside until she calms down.
Do be aware, however, of the rules you are setting, and try to make them appropriate for your child's age and level of understanding. "If you find yourself saying 'no' all day, you may have created an environment that's too complicated for your child, or you may have unreasonable expectations for her," says Dr. Dixon.
Linda Weber is a freelance writer in San Francisco.