by Albert S. Rossi, Ph.D.
The eyes are the windows of the
soul. I used to tell my Beth, when she was five, that I could look into her
beautiful eyes and see all the way to eternity. She smiles softly. Perhaps she
merely understood that her daddy thought she had beautiful blue eyes, but a seed
was planted. Today the seed grows as Beth (now nineteen) and I reflect fondly on
those moments and talk more about the eyes as windows into eternity — a poetic
but valid idea.
Children receive much of their
self-image, and consequently their self-esteem, from their parents. We parents
have the same awesome power God gave Adam and Eve in naming the kingdom
entrusted to them. We choose the names our children will be most known by during
More important, we also give names
to the different parts of our children’s self-image, names that can last a
lifetime. We parents define some of our children’s core personality. The
children adopt these definitions, these little inner characters, to fit
particular situations. If I tell my child she is a grateful child, then she will
name herself “grateful.” After a few years my child will have a self-image
consisting of many parts, many different inner characteristics. These may be,
for example, beautiful, lazy, grateful, sneaky, spoiled, messy, sweet, and moody
— all for the same child.
A loving parent will take care
never to abuse this power. For example, a parent should never call a child a
liar. Even if true, the basic message is that the parent expects this child to
be a liar and to lie. The predictable result is more and more lies form the
child. Instead, when a child lies, the parent should name the lie, correct the
child firmly and emphatically, forgive the child, and then put aside the whole
incident. No lectures needed.
While parents have great influence
on their children, life is more complex than this. Genetics plays a powerful
role in influencing children, as do siblings, TV, extended family, and peers.
However, the sheer power of parents over self-image is difficult to
My eighth-grade son, Timothy,
wants me to name his basketball skill. This gets tricky with an adolescent. As
we ride home after every game, his response is often the same. He will say (and
I think honestly because of his adolescent self-doubt), “Dad, I played lousy
tonight.” In the past I took this literally and tried to discreetly point out
his flaws on the court. I could tell this upset him. I had confused my role as
father of a struggling adolescent with a role that wasn’t mine — being his
My son wants me at every game as
his proud father, as his ally, as his supporter. I learned this lesson slowly.
He wants me to appreciate and to name his effort, his teamwork, his growth, and
his achievement honestly. At home I have plenty to criticize and correct. At his
games he wants me to observe him uncritically. I’ve discovered that there is
always something positive and truthful to say, even on the bleakest nights.
Sometimes I say a variation on the theme: “Son, the ball wasn’t dropping for
you tonight, but I could see you were working hard.” He receives his
self-esteem, even as an adolescent, in some part from my naming behavior.
I should have learned this lesson
a long time ago. As a little league coach for five years, I would cringe when a
father criticized his son for his baseball play. I knew the boy was trying hard
to hit, catch, or throw the ball accurately. The critical remarks of the father
made the boy more tense and less likely to play graceful baseball. I’ve had
boys cry like babies over bad plays they had made because they felt like a
disappointment to themselves and others, to particularly parents and peers.
An important difference between
successful and unsuccessful parents is that successful parents keep destructive
names and destructive comments to themselves. Successful parents resist the
temptation to “shoot from the hip.” Successful parents do discipline
regularly, firmly, and emphatically. They don’t allow misbehavior, but they
also don’t erode the child’s self-esteem with negative, stinging names.
Successful parents are strong enough to discipline squarely and then find the
good, true, and beautiful in their children.
Most of all, successful parents
let their children know they are exceedingly desired and desirable.
We parents learn slowly. We need
to be persistent, vigilant, and very gentle with our children and ourselves. Our
lives are classrooms for learning about God’s persistence, vigilance, and
gentleness with us.
Originally published as
“Teaching Self-Esteem” in the Liguorian magazine’s great “Parent
to Parent” column, August 1994, and reprinted with permission from Liguorian,
One Liguori Drive, Liguori, MO 63057.
© 1999-2000 by Orthodox
Family Life and the original author(s).
URL: http://www.theologic.com/oflweb. This web site is donated and maintained by TheoLogic Systems, which provides software and information tools for Orthodox Christians and parishes world wide.