This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem" by Nathaniel Branden. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What role does parenting play in children’s self-esteem? How can parents help their children develop healthy self-esteem?
If parents fail to provide optimal conditions for the proper psychological development of their child, he or she could grow into an adult who is in an arrested stage of psychological development—and whose self-esteem is unhealthy. Of course, these children can still adopt behavior that nurtures their self-esteem, so parenting doesn’t determine a child’s self-esteem, but it can support or hamper it.
Here are eight specific best practices for building self-esteem in children.
How Parents Can Nurture Self-Esteem
Proper parenting should provide children with the skills and beliefs they need to behave in ways that generate self-esteem. Newborns are like blank slates who are on a journey to discover themselves—in other words, to reach the final stage of psychological development, when they are autonomous adults with healthy self-esteem.
One of the main ways to foster children’s self-esteem is to make the child feel “seen,” or understood—which is a common theme among the specific parenting behaviors Branden recommends. He explains that, since we can’t know with certainty if our experiences of ourselves are objectively true, we look to others’ reactions to us to determine how accurate they are. Children, who are still developing, do this with their parents: When their parents’ reactions reflect what they experience and believe, they feel understood, which makes them feel that they are special and that they belong. But if the parents’ reaction does not reflect what they believe, they feel misunderstood and “invisible,” which harms their self-esteem.
(Shortform note: Parenting experts add that making your child feel understood has other benefits: A child who feels understood is one who communicates his needs, remains motivated, and is more self-aware.)
Making a child feel seen doesn’t involve agreeing with everything they do. You can still criticize them, but your reaction can’t make the child’s belief seem absurd. For example, don’t provide overblown praise for an objectively mediocre achievement.
(Shortform note: One psychologist notes that if your child’s action reminds you of a traumatic experience, you may overreact and criticize them more harshly than warranted. She recommends identifying your triggers, and if your child engages in them, take a moment to collect yourself so that you don’t overreact.)
But what are the specific behaviors parents should perform to help their children generate self-esteem? Branden gives a few suggestions for building self-esteem in children:
1. Parents should provide an environment where their child feels safe—both physically, with proper food and shelter, and emotionally. In part, this involves creating a predictable environment. The rules don’t constantly change and the parents act relatively stably. Growing up in a predictable environment supports the development of self-efficacy: If I can accurately predict what will happen in my home, I learn that my mind is useful and trustworthy—and when I trust my mind, I grow confident in my capability.
(Shortform note: In Attached, Levine and Heller add that growing up in a predictable environment also encourages secure attachment, which studies show correlates positively with self-esteem: If your parents are available and responsive to your needs, you develop an expectation that others will also care about your needs.)
2. Parents should express love through their words, behavior, and emotions. A child who receives love learns that they are worthy of love; a child who doesn’t receive love learns that they are unworthy of love.
(Shortform note: Try learning your child’s love language, which Gary Chapman defines in The 5 Love Languages as the types of actions that make him feel the most loved. Chapman’s book focuses on how to speak your partner’s love language, but his advice is applicable to everybody—including your children.)
Expressing love through touch is especially effective. This is partly because touch is preverbal, so you can use it on children who are too young to understand words. Additionally, touch is physical: If you lovingly touch me, I know that you love me—not some abstract version of me—because I can feel you doing so. Children who are touch-deprived often don’t feel loved; they think that someone who really loved them would touch them.
(Shortform note: Touch may also be effective because of its physiological effects: Being touched lowers your heart rate, relaxes you, and encourages dopamine, a hormone related to pleasure.)
3. Parents should accept their children by listening to and recognizing what the child wants, feels, and thinks. Branden explains that children who are accepted learn to accept themselves. In contrast, children whose parents reject them learn to reject themselves: They agree with their parents so as not to lose their love. You don’t have to be enthusiastic about or agree with every desire your child has. For example, you don’t have to love football because your kid wants to play professionally. But you do have to accept that he loves it.
(Shortform note: Modern psychologists emphasize that recognizing and accepting your child’s needs doesn’t mean always giving in to their desires—a parenting strategy that can backfire because it ultimately diminishes the respect your kids have for you.)
4. Parents should respect their children by treating them politely: Don’t use language to your child that you would never use to an adult—like telling her she’s “dumb” for forgetting something. Branden explains that by treating your child and the people around them with respect, your child learns that it’s standard to treat both themselves and others with respect.
(Shortform note: Modern parenting experts argue that, in an attempt to respect their children, many parents have gone too far in the other direction: Parents ask children to do things instead of telling them what to do. This strategy works for trivial decisions, but not for important decisions like eating healthily. For example, children who are asked to eat healthily learn that they’re in control and only eat what they want, which can lead to long-term health issues.)
5. Parents should provide their children with reasonable rules and expectations. You should be able to explain why these rules exist and update them to age-appropriate levels as your child grows. Branden rejects the notion that letting your child run free encourages healthy self-esteem. Instead, he contends that by setting boundaries, you reassure children that they’re safe because someone appropriate is in control. So boundaries encourage self-esteem; a lack of boundaries encourages not self-esteem but insecurity and anxiety.
(Shortform note: In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson contends that by not teaching your kids boundaries, you’re effectively outsourcing that training to society, which is far less tolerant than you are. For example, if you don’t teach your child how to control her temper, other children may refuse to play with her.)
6. Parents should praise their children descriptively, or “appreciatively,” instead of judgmentally, or “evaluatively.” Branden contends that if your praise includes some kind of judgment, you create dependence: The child learns to evaluate their worth by what others think. But if you praise a child without expressing judgment, you both encourage behavior that supports self-esteem and teach the child to rely on their own judgment—which encourages self-esteem. To do this specifically describe the praiseworthy behavior, then let the child draw their own conclusions. For example, if a picky eater tries broccoli for the first time, say, “You couldn’t touch anything green three weeks ago, but today you ate broccoli.” The child will conclude that they did a good job—and since you’re praising their efforts, they’re more likely to expend effort in the future.
(Shortform note: Similarly, in Mindset, psychologist Carol Dweck recommends praising your children for what they’ve achieved through practice and persistence, keeping your focus on how they succeeded or improved. Dweck explains that if you praise a child’s intelligence or ability, you imply you’re proud of them for some inherent trait—and your child may develop resistance to difficult challenges that may expose that trait’s weakness.)
7. Parents should criticize their children’s behavior instead of judging the child. To do so, state the behavior, state how you feel about the behavior, then state how he can make amends (if applicable). Don’t globalize a single behavior and use it to judge him. For example, don’t tell him he’s lazy because he overslept. This will make your child feel rejected and thus unloved or unworthy, which will reduce his self-esteem. Moreover, if your child believes your judgment, he’s more likely to act like what you say he is: If you say he’s mean, he’ll believe he’s mean and so act meanly.
(Shortform note: In No-Drama Discipline, parenting experts Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson recommend approaching parenting mindfully. When your child misbehaves, first ask yourself why your child did what he did to avoid blowing up at him.)
8. Parents should encourage a healthy attitude toward mistakes. When your child errs, accept the error instead of reprimanding them. And don’t try to fix the child’s error, either. Give your children the tools they need to rectify the mistake on their own, like by asking leading questions.
(Shortform note: In Mindset, Dweck explains that if you have a fixed mindset—a belief that qualities like intelligence are innate and unchangeable—it may be difficult to encourage a healthy attitude toward mistakes because you struggle with failure. She recommends developing a growth mindset—a belief that you can improve your abilities—by creating a fixed-mindset persona to remind you that this isn’t who you want to be.)
Branden warns that unhealthy attitudes toward mistakes lead to damaged self-esteem. Errors are necessary to learning: You must err repeatedly as you practice a skill so you can eventually master it. But if you reject a child whenever he slips up, he may start to reject himself whenever he errs—which reduces his self-esteem. And if you don’t let a child make his own mistakes, he may learn that learning is less important than not failing. This limits his ability to practice several behaviors that generate self-esteem, like self-assertiveness. (As you may recall, one way to be self-assertive is to try to master life’s challenges head-on.)
(Shortform note: In The Confidence Code, Kay and Shipman contend that you can improve your child’s comfort with mistakes by exposing them to risk slowly—then being intentional and constructive when they inevitably fail. For example, don’t push your child off a boat to teach her how to swim; take her to the pool and let her practice without yelling at her for being a bad swimmer.)
Branden adds that, in addition to the behaviors listed above, parents should work on their own self-esteem. This is partly because you can only make your child feel understood if you accurately see what’s happening; this requires you to practice consciousness, which is essential to self-esteem. Additionally, Branden notes, children learn from what their parents do—so the best way to teach healthy self-esteem is to have healthy self-esteem. Try implementing the pillars discussed in Part 2 in your interactions with your children. This will help improve both their and your own self-esteem. For example, if you operate with more consciousness towards your children, you’ll help improve their self-esteem by making them feel more seen.
(Shortform note: Working on your self-esteem may be particularly important for new mothers, especially if they have multiple children: A Norwegian study found that mothers’ self-esteem increased for the first six months of their baby’s life—but then steadily declined until their child turned 3. (The study didn’t follow the mothers long-term, so it’s unclear how their self-esteem may fluctuate throughout their children’s life.) Even if your youngest children don’t remember your self-esteem in their earliest years, your older children are more likely to pay attention to and emulate the example you’re setting.)
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