How would your child answer the following questions:
- Are you good?
- Are you lovable?
- When you try something new, do you expect to succeed?
- Do you think you have a unique contribution to make to the world that no one else can make?
- Are you proud to be Jewish?
We all want to raise children with a good self-image -- children who will be able to answer a resounding "yes!" to all of the above questions.
And we as parents have tremendous power when it comes to building their child's positive self-image.
JEWISH CONCEPT OF SELF-WORTH
Judaism teaches the concept of intrinsic self-worth. We have worth simply by virtue of the fact that we were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This means we have worth unrelated to what we accomplish. I recently saw a billboard depicting a child with a headline that read "I know I'm not junk because God doesn't make junk."
In this series of articles I will discuss the concept of self-image and how it relates to children. I will also share some practical tools for building your child's self-concept. Some of the tools will be more universal, while others will be uniquely Jewish.
How do know that we are entitled to have a positive view of ourselves?
At start, we need ask the basic question: How do know that we are entitled to have a positive view of ourselves?
As stated above, the Torah tells us we are created in the image of God. The human being was the goal of creation. God created everything in the world to serve us, giving us dominion over everything and entrusting us with responsibility and accountability for what we do with creation.
The Talmud teaches that each person should feel as though the world was created for him or her alone. Furthermore, we are taught that each human being has an important mission to accomplish that no one else can fulfill. Finally, we are told that the human task is to emulate none other than God Himself, meaning that it is possible to reach incredible heights of greatness.
All this adds up to making humanity a pretty important entity!
In addition to being created in the image of God, the fact that we are also part of a nation whose mission is to be a moral compass and spiritual light to the world is another factor which, if understood properly, contributes to a heightened self-image.
This is the spiritual dimension of self-esteem. Jews, who know their place in the world and have figured out how they can contribute with the special gifts or talents God has given them, will feel good about themselves and what they are doing.
Compare this attitude to that of our modern society. How do we measure our self-worth? Generally speaking, self-worth is dependent on the jobs we have, the money we make, the cars we drive, we power we wield, the fame we achieve. We live in a world where we judge ourselves and others by many externals.
Think about how this has affected you and how you feel about yourself.
In the modern world, self-worth is dependent on the jobs we have, the money we make and the cars we drive.
I recently bought a new car. I was driving a 1979 Chevy station wagon for 16 years. It was somewhat of a sight for sore eyes, but it was excellent for carpool with its nine seatbelts and I never had to worry if I got a nick in the paint or if the kids ate their snacks on the way home. But I must say that there was some embarrassment on my part if I met someone new and the person saw the car I was driving. I would feel like saying "I just want you to know that we are not losers who can't make a living and buy a decent car. We just have other priorities for spending our money!"
I am very aware of how people are judged in our society, and as much as I don't want to buy into that mentality and I don't want my children to buy into it either, I am also aware that none of us are immune to it. We all suffer from overexposure to ads that paint the image of the truly successful person. Fortunately for myself, I now look like a much more successful person when driving down the road (phew!).
A SPIRITUAL BANK ACCOUNT
Self-concept goes even deeper. It is all well and good to know that we are created in the image of God and that we have a special mission in life, but this knowledge needs to be translated into action in order for us to really feel good about ourselves.
My husband once explained that self-esteem is like a bank account. God makes the initial deposit by creating us in His image. We make deposits into the account by emulating Him when we are compassionate, slow to anger, or pursuers of truth. When we use time well, cook for a sick neighbor, give to charity or make positive changes in our characters, we are adding to the account. When we scream at our children, speak abruptly to our spouses, chose comfort over meaning, or give in to the third piece of chocolate cake we are making withdrawals.
Building self-esteem is therefore about making choices to continuously emulate God.
Building self-esteem is therefore about making choices to continuously emulate God (to "go in His ways" Deut. 28:9), thereby fulfilling one of the purposes of our creation. This is a much more profound sense of self-worth than experienced by anyone who gets straight A's, plays tennis well or makes a salary of six figures.
Since the concept of intrinsic self-worth is an abstract one, especially for children, we need to focus on the practical, because a child (indeed any person) will not feel intrinsic self-worth unless he is actually doing something good. Anyone who is constantly making bad choices in life, such as engaging in self-destructive behavior, will not be helped by being told, "Cheer up. You have intrinsic self-worth!" That person will not experience self-worth until he or she starts making good choices which enhance self-image.
FOCUSING ON THE PRACTICAL
Building our children's self-image depends in great measure on the degree to which we can teach them to take pleasure in emulating God.
- First, our children must see us modeling this behavior and deriving great pleasure and satisfaction from refining our characters, performing acts of kindness, and taking responsibility for ourselves and the world.
- Second, we must try to surround our children with people who can serve as role models other than their parents. If their friends, school and community reflect these Jewish values and concerns it will be the "in" thing and not just their parents' thing. The social pressure must be in that direction.
We once tried to get our young children to visit a nursing home with us every Sunday. One of our daughters was particularly repulsed by the aroma of harsh cleansers and wanted nothing to do with going to nursing homes. Years later she was visiting school friends in another neighborhood for Shabbat. When I asked what they did all day she replied that after lunch they went to a nursing home. "Really?" I nonchalantly asked. "Yes. They go every week. It's no big deal."
- Third, we must give our children opportunities to participate in activities that expand them as human beings and foster social consciousness. Tutoring friends, making a meal for a family in mourning, babysitting for a pregnant neighbor on bed-rest, and stuffing envelopes for a fundraiser are a few examples.
- Fourth, we as parents must value and praise such character-building activities at least as much as we cheer for the touchdown if not more so.
- Fifth, we must talk about how good it makes us feel about ourselves when we strive to have relationship with God, chose right over wrong, seek wisdom and truth, fight for a good cause or get control over our emotions.
- Sixth, we must minimize our own preoccupation with the externals mentioned above (cars, redecorating, body image, etc.)
In sum, we want our children to feel good about themselves because they believe they are doing the things they are created to do, things which have meaning and purpose, things which really affect the world and the people in it, things which require them to be human beings in the fullest sense of the word. The best way to accomplish this is for us to model how much pleasure we get from being involved with such pursuits and to include our children whenever possible.