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Building Self-Esteem by Fostering Individuality

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 20th 2016

Another way that parents can encourage their children's healthy self-esteem is by encouraging healthy expressions of individuality. Children begin to crave and to assert their individuality towards the later part of middle childhood. As they do, their ideas about how to become independent are shaped by sometimes conflicting external and internal demands; the conflict between what other people want them to be interested in, and what they themselves find intrinsically interesting. Typically, people's intrinsic interests tend to get drowned out by the press of external voices (from peer pressure, parental demands and marketing) which try to define what people should aspire to and what they should think. In our view, healthy self-esteem depends on a proper balance forming between these inner and outer voices, however. Therefore it is important for parents to help children learn to listen to both parts of the conversation.

Distinguishing Needs from Wants

If left to their own devices it is fairly likely that many children will succumb to media marketing and learn to express their individuality through their acquisition of status objects like clothes, shoes, video games, technological gadgets, and other possessions. Often, children will come to rely on such possessions to make them seem "cool" or accepted by peers, the idea being that they must be valuable, desirable people if they have valuable, desirable things in their possession. This is implicitly a damaging idea, however, as it reinforces the idea that children are not intrinsically valuable; that their own personalities and qualities aren't enough to make and to keep friends. As well, it is an impractical idea, because most families simply cannot afford to buy their children all, or even most of the many things they "just need to have."

Parents can combat children's implicit belief that they are not valuable to others on their own merits by teaching them the difference between "needs" and "wants". A "need" is something necessary to maintain important aspects of one's life, such as health, safety and education. For example, groceries, rent or mortgage payments, heating oil or gas, winter coats, shoes, medications, toothpaste, notebooks, and pencils are all needs. However, while children need shoes and notebooks, they do not necessarily need expensive shoes or notebooks endorsed by the latest sports or singing star. Celebrity endorsed shoes would be examples of "wants", where "wants" are understood to be any other objects that would be fun or enjoyable to have but which are not necessary for the family's basic survival.

Some families struggle just to pay the basic bills that are family "needs" and do not have money left over for their children's "wants." Other families may have enough money for the family's needs and also some of their children's "wants." Both families have opportunities to guide their children to distinguish wants from needs and to determine which "wants" are most important to them, and why. For instance, one child's family may only be able to afford generic tennis sneakers even though the child wants the ones endorsed by a famous basketball player. This may be an important lesson for the child to learn: Dad needs steel-toe boots in order to perform his job safely but famous sneakers have no similar value or importance. In another family, a girl might have to choose between getting an art set and a pair of designer jeans that all her friends are wearing. Assuming that this young lady enjoys art, she might be well advised to choose the art set on the grounds that she will really enjoy the art set and find daily enjoyment in it; whereas the jeans would be more about pleasing her friends and gaining their approval.

It will probably be almost a daily or weekly discussion or struggle to help children differentiate between what they want and what they need. However, parents' determination and firmness to teach this important distinction will, over time, help children learn that the truly important aspects of people are not their possessions, but rather their character. It will also help children to work on building their own character by defining things which are especially important to them, and in the process, strengthen their sense of self and individuality.

Coming to Terms with Gender Roles

Concepts of masculinity and femininity become increasingly important to children's identities during middle childhood. By this time, they will have absorbed cultural stereotypes about how women and men are supposed to act. For example, girls may think that it's important to wear lots of makeup or to wear short skirts in order to get guys' attention because that's what they see women in the media do. Furthermore, boys might think that "real guys" don't cry and need to fight to show their manliness. Some boys and girls will find these roles to be comfortable and won't have difficulty with them. However, others will find them restrictive and a source of unwanted pressure. In either case, parents may want to explore with their children what it means to be male or female and help them to know that it is okay to act in non-traditional ways if that's what they need to do in order to be comfortable in their own skin.

It's important that parents first listen to children's comments and beliefs about being female or male without judgment or ridicule. Only after first listening and understanding their children are they in a position to dispel incorrect or overly rigid beliefs children may have developed. Parents may want to point out positive role models; in the family, the community, or even in the popular culture, who are successful and have likes or traits that don't necessarily match the children's ideas of masculinity or femininity.


Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

RE: Building Self Esteem by Fostering Individuality - annew - Aug 23rd 2011

Now why should a child model themselves after someone else?

Individuality should be something one strives for, not classified as a mental disorder. It has been proven throughout history that collective socialism is dangerous for society. People in large groups often tend to gravitate towards negative thoughts and tend to push for perverse ideas as they become the whole of one. In other words they tend to think alike. For instance, a friend sees a blue sports car and thinks it's just the most awesome vehicle she has ever seen, she reports this to her "friends" and quite a few like it too. Pretty soon said sports cars profits rise from sales based on opinion. 


So no, never think for yourself, of course you need government, and big business and the healthcare industry to do that for you. Why? Because it benefits their pocketbooks. Duh! Hitler got started the same way.

 We perpetually as human beings, tend to repeat history, over and over and over again. No one noticed that Hilter wasn't blond, it was completely missed by the majority of society, yet he was supposedly promoting blond hair and blue eyes? He had neither folks! How easily the masses are deceived. No critical, individual thinking skills are expected from the masses. That would be a mental disorder. There was heavy sarcasm dripping off of that last sentence.

Another example of "collective" thinking is found in the DSM in which it had classified homosexuality as a mental disorder, of course their accusations of psychosis changed drastically when the gay rights activists started making an issue of it. 

Once again you cannot be an individual unless a majority group tells you so. 

Why do you think you are spammed every day on your television sets with tons of commercials? Have you ever 

counted how many commercials there are during one show? Now get off your butts and go buy the things that big pharma and the industrialists tell you to. Getting the picture yet?

Individuality vs. Herd Conformity (Erich Fromm), which will you choose?


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