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Baby You're the Best!

Your newborn's only 2 days old, but when you look into that beautiful little face, you can already imagine the wonderful person your child will become: kind, successful, loving, patient, and, of course, confident. With confidence we've all got a shot at achieving our wildest dreams, and a healthy dose of self-esteem will surely help your little one reach his.

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 There
From 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.

Be There

From 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 dirty, or hug her when she cries, you are telling your child that you care about her and love her, which in turn makes her feel worthwhile. "Probably the single most important thing parents can do is observe their infant and be responsive to what she seems to need and as many of her wants as is reasonable," says Polly Greenberg, a child/parent/teacher development specialist 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 wants to be held  -- and she likes to be held a lot  -- I pick her up," says Chesapeake, VA, mom Tara Hargrove of her 17-month-old daughter. "But my mom tells me that I give in too quickly. She says I should let Kaya cry at times so she doesn'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'll understand what she needs."

By the time Baby is 4 months old, however, you can give her a chance to learn how to soothe herself. For example, if she's upset because she wants you to rock her 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 when she learns that other people won't always let her have her way. And if other children or adults withdraw from her because she behaves disruptively if she doesn't get what she wants, she may begin to feel unlikable.

Dr. Dixon says one of the keys to setting limits is clarity. If you silently pull your child away from an electric socket without telling her what she's doing wrong, 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 when it comes to limits. 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.

Believe in your Child

It's natural to have high hopes for your little one, but it's important to her self-esteem that you keep those ideals in check and accept your baby for who she is. No matter what kind of child she's becoming  -- an active explorer, a loud crier, or a quiet daydreamer  -- her understanding and acceptance of herself will ultimately depend on you. "Your infant is going to see herself as you do," says Greenberg. "She has no other frame of reference."

It's hard to resist steering your child toward the ideal you see for her, but doing so can be unhealthy for your baby's development: She'll get the impression that she's not good enough for you or anyone else. "If the infant is very different from what the parents hoped, they tend to think something is wrong or missing in the child, and even a tiny baby can sense that she's somehow not meeting expectations," says James Cameron, Ph.D., executive director of The Preventive Ounce, an Oakland, CA, nonprofit organization that helps parents understand their child's unique temperament.

The best solution for this problem is for you to make an effort to understand and accept your child's temperament, an aspect of her character that's inborn and can't be changed. According to The Preventive Ounce, these traits include your child's energy level, adaptability to change, tolerance for frustration, sensitivity, and ability to be soothed. Understanding these aspects of your child, these experts say, is just as important to her self-esteem as loving her. So if your little one is more active than you had expected, for example, give her extra activity-oriented toys to play with rather than books to read.

It's also important to maintain a positive attitude about your child's personality, even if it doesn't mesh with yours. Many quick, one-word labels such as "shy" carry negative connotations and can ultimately bruise Baby's self-esteem. So when your toddler clings to you at the playground, instead of telling another parent that she's "fearful" or "overly cautious," you can say that she likes to take her time before she meets new people.

Lead the Cheer

You'll be boosting Baby's self-esteem in another important way by letting her discover the world on her own but backing her up as she goes. If your baby seems frustrated over a situation, your instinct may be to solve the problem for her. But if you intervene too much, your child won't gain confidence in her own abilities, and she may not learn to persist when she encounters obstacles. And later, when she's in preschool, she may compare herself unfavorably to other kids who can do more than she can.

The right kind of encouragement requires lots of patience. You'll occasionally have to sit back and watch as your child struggles to complete a new developmental task. Try to wait a few beats before stepping in to lend a hand so she gets a chance to try to solve it herself. Even better, try to coach her through the really tough spots. For example, if your little one drops an activity because she couldn't accomplish it right away, break it into little steps, and teach her to ask for help rather than yell or cry.

Andrea Gelenter of San Jose, CA, learned this lesson when her son, Frankie, was terrified of the neighbor's dog. Gelenter decided to encourage her son to get used to the dog gradually. "Little by little, Frankie was able to be in the same room with the dog, then sit near the dog, and finally he could pet the dog," says Gelenter. "Now he likes to go along when an adult walks the dog." Frankie, age 4, has told his parents that he wants a dog, "but just a little one," says Gelenter.

By taking plenty of time, Gelenter allowed her son to change at his own pace. And along the way, his mom offered plenty of hugs and words of encouragement  -- a key element in boosting self-confidence. "What gives a child positive self-esteem," says Stella Chess, M.D., professor of child psychiatry at New York University Medical Center, in New York City, "is having her qualities and accomplishments appreciated. When she masters a task and you reward her with praise, you can communicate that she's fine just the way she is."

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