When you look into your baby's sweet face, it's easy to imagine the wonderful person you hope she'll become: kind, loving, bright, and of course, confident. With confidence, we've all got a shot at achieving our wildest dreams, and a healthy dose of it will surely help your child reach hers. But can you really teach self-esteem? Absolutely, say experts. In fact, you can start the day you bring your newborn home from the hospital. Although you might not see the results of these efforts for a few years to come, you'll be giving your child the basic tools she needs for a healthy emotional life.
From the very beginning of your baby's life, you're building 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 communicating to your child that you 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 to as many of her wants as is reasonable," says Polly Greenberg, a Washington, D.C., development specialist and author of Character Development: Encouraging Self-Esteem and Self-Discipline in Infants, Toddlers, and Two-Year-Olds.
Don't worry that catering to your baby's demands will turn her into a raging egomaniac -- it won't. Most experts agree that it's impossible to "spoil" a newborn with too much love and attention. In fact, holding back could backfire on parents, according to Suzanne Dixon, M.D., 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," Dr. Dixon says, "she'll become anxious and cry more because she'll be unsure whether you understand her everyday needs."
As your baby grows, you can start to teach her how to meet some of her own needs. For example, if your 4-month-old is upset because she wants to be rocked to sleep, wait a bit before picking her up to see if she settles down on her own. If not, that's fine: She needs the extra comfort for now. And she'll let you know when she's able to soothe herself.
Once your baby becomes mobile, you'll need to set solid limits for 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 notes 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. Make the consequence clear for your child's age and level of understanding -- "You'll get a boo-boo!" -- and steer her toward a fun game. It's also important to be consistent. If your child is demanding a toy at the store, try not to give in just to quell her cries; instead, take her outside until she calms down.
Believe in your child
It's natural to have high hopes for your little one, but it's important to his self-esteem that you keep those ideals in check and accept your baby for who he is. No matter what kind of child he's becoming -- an active explorer, a loud crier, or a quiet daydreamer -- his understanding and acceptance of himself will ultimately depend on you. "Your infant is going to see himself as you do," says Greenberg. "He has no other frame of reference."
It's hard to resist steering your child toward the ideal you see for him, but doing so can give him the impression that he'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 he's somehow not meeting expectations," says James Cameron, Ph.D., executive director of The Preventive Ounce, a nonprofit organization in Oakland, California, that helps parents understand their baby's unique temperament.
The best solution is for you to make an effort to understand and accept your child's temperament, an aspect of his character that's inborn and can't be changed. According to The Preventive Ounce, these traits include your child's energy level, adaptability, tolerance, sensitivity, and ability to be soothed. Understanding these things is just as important to his self-esteem as loving him. So if your little one is more active than you had expected, for instance, give him extra activity-oriented toys to play with and save reading aloud for his bedtime quiet spells.
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 a baby's self-esteem. So when your toddler clings to you at the playground, instead of telling another parent that he's "fearful" or "overly cautious," you can say that he likes to take his time when he's meeting new people.
Lead the cheer
Be your baby's life coach. If he drops an activity because he couldn't accomplish it right away, break it into little steps, and teach him to ask for help rather than yell or cry. Andrea Gelenter of San Jose, California, 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," she says. When he started preschool, Frankie told his parents that he wanted a dog, "but just a little one."
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., a professor of child psychiatry at New York University Medical Center, in New York City, "is having his qualities and accomplishments appreciated. When he masters a task and you reward him with praise, you let him know that he's fine just the way he is."