Self Esteem

Self-esteem is defined as a person's feelings about her worth. Self-esteem and self-respect may appear to be synonyms, but as Jack Westman points out, they are not. He explains self-esteem can be on a low-high continuum based on fantasy, whereas self-respect is based on reality. Self-esteem arises from within. You can have a good feeling about yourself—high self-esteem, which is based on fantasy— and still be a selfish, inconsiderate person. Children who have been "spoiled" can have high self-esteem, which crashes when they are frustrated or don't get the sort of approval they have come to expect. In contrast, self-respect arises from without and refers to how you value yourself in relation to other people. It is having a good evaluation or judgment of yourself validated by realistic accomplishments and experiences with other people. Self-respect gives rise to authentic high self-esteem from internally generated feelings based on reality.

This authentic self-esteem in children is important for a child's emotional, social, and—now the research makes clear—also for her intellectual development. Sources of self-esteem include the following:

• A child's innate temperament helps shape her self-esteem. Easy, friendly temperament children tend to develop more self-esteem than children with difficult, inhibited temperaments.

• When parents are willing to discuss household rules and discipline with them, their children's self-esteem rises. A child then internalizes the message that she is important enough for her opinions to be heard.

Parents' consistent warmth, affection, and involvement with their children builds self-esteem. A hug sends the simple message: "You are important to me."

Self-esteem also comes from the peer comparisons a child makes and approval or rejection she experiences from peers.

Self-esteem comes from a child's emerging "belief system" which can be seen as an accumulation of all of the preceding.


When measured by researchers, self-esteem is highest in preschool and lowest at the start of junior high school. Why? One view says the transition from elementary to high school is when children fall from a secure social position to a new unfamiliar one, and find themselves at the "bottom of the pecking order."

In one study of 2,000 low- to middle-income children living in the greater Detroit area, 25 percent of 9- to 12-year-olds had negative self-esteem. Their negative views of themselves showed up on all three scales measured: academic competence, social acceptance, and global self-worth. On each scale, 5 to 10 percent more girls than boys displayed negative self-esteem.

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