Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Don't hit, kiss!" 5 ways we help our daughter love herself

Amaliya throws epic fits, as most almost-two-year-olds do. When her limited vocabulary fails her and she is overcome with anger and frustration, she bites.  For a while she was sinking her sharp little baby teeth into my forearms when I brushed her hair, or into my legs when I was cooking dinner.  If that didn't alleviate her stress, or if my tender haunches were out of reach, she would bite herself instead.  It was hilarious at first, I'll be honest - watching her shove her hand into her mouth or take a bite out of her own forearm and look shocked that, hey, that hurts!

I realized, though, that this probably isn't a good behavior to encourage.  I know this is normal for her developmental stage, but its never too early to discourage self-harm as a means of dealing with difficult emotions.  I started telling her, "Don't bite yourself!  Kiss yourself, because you love yourself!"  And she does!  It is amazing actually - in the throes of a mad fit when she is centimeters away from chomping on her own arm, she will pause to say, "No bite!  Kiss!" and will give herself a loving smooch (sometimes two or three, depending on how angry she is!).  Instead of running up to bite me when I'm cooking, now she wraps herself around my legs and showers my knees with kisses.

I've always had a healthy self-esteem.  Well, mostly.  As a teenager I had my share of "I don't want to be me" moments, occasional feelings of worthlessness because so-and-so didn't like me or a friend said something harsh, but these negative feeling were very, very few and far between.  My self-talk was largely positive: I am smart, I am a good listener, I am funny, I have beautiful eyes, I look cute when I wear that shirt, and so on.  I have no idea how I ended up that way, though.  High self-esteem certainly does not run in my family. I experienced bullying in elementary and high school (though not to the debilitating degree that many kids today are going through it).  I was always independent-minded.  Not very sensitive.  Tough, I guess, and I never let my own failures or the cruelty of others get to my heart.

Good for me, however, this has left me rather clueless when it comes to my own daughter.  She might turn out just like her father and I, functionally self-absorbed to the point that she doesn't give two craps what other people think of her.  Or, she might be different.  Sensitive.  Inclined to be her own worst critic, and let the judgements and opinions of others weigh on her.  It hurts me to think of her in the world by herself, doubting her awesomeness just because of what other people say about her.

It is never too early to start emphasizing self-love and acceptance.  Here are a few things we're doing now, and will do in the future, to make sure our daughter grows up with a healthy, positive sense of self.
  1. I will never bash my body, or hers, in front of her.  I've posted before about how we love our bellies, and bodies, in this house.  I let her see me naked, and I talk nicely about my own body in front of her.  I tell her that I love my shoulders, or "look at mama's muscles," or that I put on lotion because it makes my skin soft. We talk about how beautiful her curly hair and brown skin are.  We three compare our different bodies, and shower praise on all of them

  2. We use lots of positive verbal reinforcement, and not just limited to her physical appearance.  We applaud her (literally) whenever she tries to do something new, pronounces a tough word correctly, or shows kindness to others.  This article, all about the importance of praising a child's character instead of only acknowledging the good behaviors, has stuck with me.  I try and emphasize her good character as often as possible, telling her, "you are such a helpful person," when she puts laundry away, or, "You are a very loving girl," when she comes up and gives me a hug for no reason.  Conversely, when we need to correct her, we comment on the behavior ("that is a bad thing to do") instead of her nature ("bad girl!").


  4. We exercise together.  I try and incorporate little workouts here and there in my evening routine, and Amaliya is now old enough to watch and try and make sense of what I'm doing.  We make games out of it: we hold hands and "run fast" throughout the house, collapsing at the finish line (the beanbag).  I do pushups in the living room, with her on all fours imitating me.  We do crunches in front of the TV and squats at the kitchen sink.  I tell her, "Go, Amaliya!  Strong girl!"  I want her to understand from an early age that movement is not punishment, and exercise is joy and play instead of regimented obligation.  

  5.  We're going to involve her in activities.  She's a bit young now for serious structured play, but by this time next year we're going to start introducing her to sports, music, and whatever else catches her fancy.  I want her always to be involved in at least two activities - one that benefits her body, and another than benefits her mind.  Everyone I know who really struggled with self-esteem as a kid had something in common - they were never really involved in anything, never had the opportunity to cultivate their passions and learn about themselves by pushing their own limits in sports or the arts.  These things build confidence, a sense of self, and social skills. It is important to us that Amaliya have the opportunity to try different things and find her niche.  

  6.  We surround her with positive people.  I know that we will gradually lose control over this aspect of her life; she will make her own friends and relate with her friends' parents who may send her conflicting messages.  However, as much as I can help it, I want the people that I bring around her to be joyful, optimistic, energetic people who show love to themselves and others.  If she sees that we surround ourselves with life-affirming people, and do not entertain drama and negativity, hopefully one day she will be able to chose friends and partners who add value to her life instead of dragging her down.

No parent wants to see their child struggle with self-esteem issues.  I'm really hoping that, by surrounding her with lots of positive reinforcement and giving her the confidence and opportunity to define herself, our daughter will grow up to know what I know already: she is perfect, just as she is.

Did you grow up with a healthy self-esteem?  What are you doing to encourage self-love in your kids?

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