Building a Strong Sense of Self in Your Grandkids
By Paul Axtell
American philosopher William James said it best: People by and large become what they think about themselves. Part of the power of one’s sense of self is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. High self-esteem allows children to participate, try new things, overcome setbacks, and develop skills—all of which lead to a long pattern of experience, learning, and success. Low self-esteem leaves children on the sidelines, afraid to risk failure by trying something new—which then leads to lower self-respect, and the spiral turns downward from there.
Self-esteem includes knowing you are capable. Kids with high esteem say, “I can do this.” With low esteem, they say, “I’m not good at this” or “I don’t like this” or “I don’t want to.” It’s important to avoid overdoing for our grandkids, says psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore. “In general, we don’t want to do things for children that they can do for themselves because it robs them of the opportunity to learn important coping skills.”
Being capable doesn’t mean you are good at everything. It’s not possible to know or be good at everything. Healthy self-esteem allows you to be in a learning mode, to be less than perfect. It allows for weaknesses and mistakes—things to work on if you want to be really good at dancing or coding or writing. Self- esteem allows you to readily admit that you don’t know or can’t do something. It also allows you to learn from and enjoy people who are better than you without in any way feeling diminished in their presence. Improving at anything means you must occasionally come up against people who are better; the important thing is to enjoy their abilities while learning from them without feeling discounted by their success.
How to nurture a strong sense of self in your grandchildren:
- Remove all doubt that they are important to you. Tell them directly that they can count on you to be there for them if they need you, and you will always be on their side. Tell them you love them. Tell them you like them. Be responsive when they ask for your attention, participation, or help.
If you need help, just ask. I’m always here for you.
Sure, let me set what I’m doing aside and we’ll do it.
- Support their interests—even if they are not your own. They don’t have to love what you love. If they need expert help or support, find a friend or colleague who can provide it. Make time in your own schedule to support them in any way you can.
- Let them help. When your youngster offers to help you, accept the invitation even though it might take longer to finish the task. If there’s something you’re doing that they could help you with, ask.
Okay, here’s everything we need to do to prepare dinner. What would you like to do?
My office needs to be organized; would you like to help me?
- Teach them to do all kinds of things. If your grandkids express an interest in learning anything, teach them. Teach them how to make salads, hang pictures, plant vegetables, shuffle cards, play bridge or chess, replace batteries in your alarms—literally anything you do each week that they don’t yet know how to do is something you can help them learn.
Would you mind grilling the salmon tonight? I’ll explain how to do it, and if you have questions, I’ll be in the kitchen.
All the smoke alarms need new batteries. Would you change them out for me?
- Praise, but not too much. Excessive praise can lead to less confidence, not more. Kids notice when their parents or grandparents overdo the affirmations; in fact, it reminds them that they aren’t perfect. When praise becomes a commodity, it has little impact and often the reverse. When it is unexpected, it can be remarkable.
- Don’t give credit when it’s not due. Telling children they did well when they didn’t will seem shallow. Overdoing praise can lead to entitlement, a false sense of capability, and, at some point, skepticism. Praise won’t work if it’s not tied to genuine achievement. Not saying anything might be the best move.
- Associatesuccess not with being smart or talented, but with preparation, effort, and practice. These are the variables they can always access. Help them learn the attributes that will serve them everywhere in life: perseverance, patience, a good attitude, and a strong work ethic.
- When your grandkids are self-critical, notice what they are saying, but don’t resist it. Rather, ask them to do a reality check. Is that really true? Is there any evidence to the contrary?
- Don’t try to motivate your grandkids by comparing them to others. When we compare, either favorably or unfavorably, someone ends up being lesser. Role models to look up to are fine. Pointing out how your grandkid is better than or not as good as someone else is not useful. They do enough comparing on their own without us adding to their misery.
- Allow them to fail. Resilience is the capability to bounce back from loss or disruption. It’s why allowing kids to make mistakes is so important. Encourage them to think about their decisions and the consequences. Let them try to solve their own problems instead of automatically helping or rescuing them. Sharing about moments from the past where you failed or suffered a loss lets them know it’s okay to make mistakes, to learn from failure and move on.
- Speak to your grandkids respectfully. It’s a privilege to have grandkids, and your interactions can reflect that perspective rather than an attitude of indifference or annoyance.
- Listen to your grandkids with empathy and compassion. Stay out of judgment. Just accept them as they are. Listen for what they are feeling. Acknowledge what you are hearing. Don’t say anything to make things better—you can’t. Just listening is the best response.
Paul Axtell is an author, speaker, and corporate trainer. He is the author of two award-winning books: Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids and Meetings Matter. An updated 2018 edition of Ten Powerful Things will be available on May 1. He has also developed a training series, Being Remarkable, which is designed to be led by managers or HR specialists.