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Are you smiling? Nurturing a child’s self-esteem

In recent times, there has been a great deal of emphasis on the importance of nurturing a child’s self-esteem.

At first glance, this seems a direct contrast to the methods of child-rearing I recall from my formative years back in the 1920s and 1930s.

My brother and I were sometimes reminded not to get “too uppity” or “too big for our britches” and were told on some occasions that “children should be seen and not heard.”



I do not remember that either one of us felt particularly damaged by these admonitions. (We noticed that almost everybody’s parents seemed to say the same kind of things.) When we were spoken to in this way, we simply understood we had exceeded the bounds of acceptable behavior and that it would be advisable to “tone things down,” as our father or mother suggested.

Furthermore, it was ingrained in us that we were works in progress. Therefore we needed to pay attention because we had a lot to learn, and there was always plenty of room for improvement.




We sometimes sighed under the weight of our parents’ expectations and our teachers’ demands for hard work and civil behavior. However, they were adults and we were children, and there was no blurring of our roles and no question at all about who was in charge.

As I think about this now, I realize my older brother and I, who were adopted children, were fortunate in our childhood.

Ours was the kind of conservative small town upbringing that is now the stuff of Hallmark nostalgia. Life was far less complicated for us than it is for children today.

The pace was slower, the rules, even if not precisely defined, were still well understood and the boundaries agreed upon. For the most part, our growing up was allowed to be a gradual process.

Our play times were not organized or closely supervised, leaving us free to enjoy death-defying activities and hair-raising adventures as long as we didn’t destroy property or maim each other, and providing that our mother knew our general whereabouts so that she could call us home to do our chores or run an errand to the corner grocery store.

We developed agility by climbing an old cottonwood tree to reach out for a rope that dangled six or eight feet above the ground. We then emulated Tarzan (I thought his full name was Tarzan of the Yapes) by swinging in a wide arc, hoping to make a lithe and graceful landing on the ground exactly the way Tarzan did it.

We improved our balance by walking along high cement retaining walls with nothing to hang onto. For a little extra excitement we skated on irregular downhill sidewalks wearing our clamp-on roller skates which loosened easily and caused some nasty falls. I had scabs on my knees all summer long.

Well, so times have changed, and it is easy for a very elderly person like me to exclaim, “Alas and alack! What is to become of the younger generation!”

Everyday life now seems to me too constricted, too hurried, too complex, too impersonal, and, yes, too dangerous, to be a healthy environment for raising children.

When I see a knot of small children on the street corner waiting for the school bus, my first impulse is to pity them. These small commuters, burdened down by backpacks, appear equipped to enter a battle zone.

They are regimented, poor things, and will never walk to school, kicking through fallen leaves or wading through snow drifts on the mile long trip the way I did.

Then I notice that as they await the bus, many of them are laughing and scuffling about as children have always done.

And there are mothers or fathers sitting in cars, keeping an eye on the children, waiting to make certain their children are safely on the bus, before they go on to their daily routine.

Obviously far too many children are not cared for and guarded in this way, and even for those who are, childhood is not always the happy time it is touted to be.

In fact, my experience has been that if you ask people if they would like to repeat their childhoods, they are apt to look thoughtful for a moment and then say, “Well, no, actually I wouldn’t.”

Growing up is very hard work. Helping a child grow into a compassionate and caring adult is a major responsibility.

Yes, let us foster self-esteem. It lights up the world around us.


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