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.
Linda Weber is a freelance writer in San Francisco.