Never give up! Just do it!
We would like nothing more than to raise kids who have no quit in them. We believe that perseverance and determination stem from self-esteem.
However, another, less known term is self-regulation. Self-regulation is defined as the willingness to exert effort toward one’s most important goals, while taking setbacks and failures as opportunities to learn, identify weaknesses and address them, and develop new strategies toward achieving those goals.
If self-regulation is the intentional act of moving forward, self-esteem is the driving motivation to do so. This seems like a simple enough formula. For a child to self-regulate, they must possess self-esteem.
As parents and educators, this then becomes our goal. Not only should we strive to provide kids with intellectual tools, but with the self-esteem to make use of these tools through self-regulation.
In our work with Hope Torch, we encounter many kids who don’t have self-esteem, this inner motivation. Not only is their toolset limited, but their willingness to use whatever tools they have is even more so. Ironically, there are also quite a few kids who do have what appears to be extreme self-esteem. In our experience, it is unusual to find the middle ground. Either they have it in bushels or not at all. Kids in these difficult situations tend to have the same problems as other kids, but they are magnified. Where does this polarization of self-esteem come from?
When we formed the Hope Torch vision, it began with our experiences at different children’s homes and the transitions we saw in the self-esteem of the kids. At a young age, kids were assertive, motivated, and full of confidence. However, right around the onset of adolescence, we saw that this belief in themselves drastically change.
For some kids, they developed a relentless stranglehold on their self-esteem, to the point at which these kids were enforcing their belief in themselves as superiority over the other kids. They would seek validation of that belief through their performance or through extracting it from the other kids (bullying).
For most other kids, it was a precipitous drop in self-esteem. Kids who believed they had great potential, within one year, reduced their aspirations to the bare minimum, if that.
It is hard to pinpoint what caused this shift. Curiously enough, for most of them, it was around the 6th-8th standard, a time in which there are no major exams, and academic expectations have not yet come.
In one case, a child, a top performer for the first 6 years of schooling happened to fail one exam. She was not used to failing. She cried all the way home. Instead of taking on the challenge and working harder the next time, she promptly failed the next six exams; the failing has continued since. The crying however stopped. From the caretaker or teacher’s perspective, it was almost unexplainable. What happened to her self-esteem? How did one exam crush it?
Through investigating the reasons self-esteem develops in a child, we can construct a process that establishes a self-esteem that is unshakeable.
Self-Esteem Built on Shaky Ground
Self-esteem, essential for our self-regulation, can find its source both internally or externally. For most kids, especially those in the children’s homes or low-income areas Hope Torch works in, external sources drive their self-esteem.
Kids experience success early on in primary school. Their self-esteem builds. It is validated by the praise they get from their caretakers, parents, or teachers. This motivates their self-regulation and all seems well. That is, until they hit the first obstacle that challenges their belief in their abilities. Once that hits, for many of the kids, it is a free fall in their self-esteem. The adults monitoring the child are left to wonder what happened to that seemingly secure self-esteem.
The underlying challenge with pursuing self-esteem is that self-esteem largely does not acknowledge the transactional nature of human culture, society and relationship. This means, that we think of self-esteem as a belief in ourselves, but in most kids, it is in fact derived from the feedback we receive from others and from our environment.
A child who is told from an early age that they are good at math will believe it; their self-esteem becomes founded in it. This remains true, so long as the external feedback is consistently the same. The minute that feedback changes (i.e. they fail an exam, or they get negative feedback from their math teacher), their self-esteem drops significantly.
This is the inherent flaw in the idea that we must ask our kids to focus on their skills. Who determined that they were skilled? Was it the child? Or was it their teacher or their parent? Self-esteem does not care about the answers to these questions.
Even worse, self-esteem can become addictive. Boosts in self-esteem are pleasurable and drops in self-esteem are painful. Thus, protection, maintenance, and enhancement of self-esteem can become the overriding motivation for action.
The problem is with the foundation of self-esteem. This leads us to the first step in our process.
Step 1: Recognize the source of Your self-esteem.
“I’m not what you say I am.”
The first step which must be taken is to identify where a kid’s self-esteem comes from.
If it comes from anything outside of the kid, such as skills, appearance, performance, relationships, or even social skills, it has been derived from the feedback that other people or the environment have given the kid. Change the external factors, change the feedback, and the self-esteem crumbles.
Whether you are a spiritual person or not, you first have to accept that there is something to you beyond all your skills, abilities, thoughts and experiences. We have been conditioned by society to think that our resume is all that we are. Even worse, society tells us what should be on our resume and what shouldn’t.
This happens primarily because society, whichever society we are in, tries to shape us into a cog that fits its system and purpose. However, that doesn’t mean the child is limited to being that cog.
From this perspective, self-awareness is the child’s ability to see what society is trying to do with them. This does not mean that the child need rebel from this manipulation. If a child realizes that most schools are only viewing them as potential marketing tools, that does not mean they need to quit school. Only that, the child realize that there is something deeper and inherently their own which is out of the reach of society’s manipulation. The child must realize that their value does not come from their ability to be that cog in the school’s marketing machine.
For this reason, self-awareness is critical to a realization of self-worth. The child does not yet need to define “who I am”. However, the child must realize “what I am not”.
A kid who can identify that their self-esteem is derived from external feedback has taken the first step in solving this problem.
Step 2: Establish a foundation in Your Self-Worth.
“I deserve a shot.”
Self-worth has been the focus of Hope Torch since Day One. The reason for this is because self-worth is the only stable foundation that is available to anyone and everyone.
Self-worth can be defined in three rather unique ways. The first is that self-worth is the availability of our Spirit or Self to believe in ourselves.
A Spirit that is available is a Spirit that permits. This is key to the understanding of self-worth. It is not society that has locked up a child’s self-worth, though society may have been the impetus. The child locks up their own self-worth.
The addiction of self-esteem consumes children. From an early age, they are taught that their value comes from pleasing others. In our experience, this is magnified in a children’s home. Kids are made to sing and dance for any sponsor who might come. Marks are not only a source of caretaker pride, but a source of financial support. However, this is a problem that all kids face to varying degrees.
Parents feel that, since it seems children need this external affirmation, they are helping them by providing it. As with any addiction, this is a recipe for failure.
Rather, the child must be given reason to allow their Self to believe that they matter. That their contribution matters, even if they don’t know how. Especially, even if the way in which they matter is not according to society’s scale.
This is self-worth. The belief that we matter. The belief that our contribution to society, even if it is merely our presence, has an impact which is immeasurable.
Another perspective on self-worth is to imagine that all your skills, abilities, experiences, and thoughts are taken away. What would be left of you? This is actually not that unrealistic a situation. It happens often to people who have had a stroke or with severe Alzheimer’s.
Does such a person have self-worth? If so, what is it derived from? In fact this is the only absolute about you; you are everything that is left when you take away all your skills, experiences, abilities, etc…
Self-worth is self-referential. The way in which we perceive ourselves. The way in which we perceive our social environment. Perhaps most importantly, the way in which we perceive the social environment perceiving us. These are all indications that we are isolating our Self from society’s influence, and identifying the source of our self-worth.
Self-worth is derived from what you are minus all that society has said you are.
A final angle on self-worth is to think of what we mean by inalienable, human rights. We all would agree that every person is unique in their skills, experiences, thoughts and abilities; no two people can be called equal in these aspects. At the same time, we would all agree (I hope) that every human is born with certain and equal rights.
However, if all people are “worthy” of equal human rights and these rights are inalienable, then it must be that these rights are attributed to and justified by a part of us which is not based on our skills, experiences, thoughts and abilities. This equal and inalienable part of us is where our self-worth finds its root.
For these reasons, self-esteem derived by anything external to oneself must be identified and corrected.
Further, we must remember the future is always unknown. Society does everything in its power to not only predict the future, but control it. This includes defining what aspects of an individual are worthy of it, and what are not. All evaluation is based on the perceived plan of society.
However, the inherent flaw is that history proves that society’s plan rarely takes shape. Society’s estimation of an individual is based on a plan that is most likely inaccurate. Thus, it makes no sense to evaluate ourselves or anyone else on society’s scale.
Rather, it is safer to assume, that each individual has an incredibly powerful contribution to make to society. Neither can we predict what that contribution will be, nor can we predict when that contribution will bear its fruit. It may happen today or it may happen 3-4 generations from now.
Either way, it is impossible for anyone to measure our worth. And it is more than likely, that our impact will be significant.
Step 3: Derive Self-esteem that stems from your Self-worth.
“I can’t believe I did that.”
In the same way Step 2 ended, Step 3 begins. We don’t know the future. We don’t know what we are capable of. And we don’t know what our impact will be.
Therefore, every step we take forward, simultaneously acknowledging the unknown but embracing the potential power of our impact, builds our self-esteem solely upon our self-worth.
This concept and belief in the unknown future is key to a foundation of self-worth. If a child believes that academic success is a stepping stone to college, or to good marks on an exam, or even to a smile from a parent, the future is perceived as a known. The child bases their self-esteem on their ability to acquire that “known” result. If (and in many cases when) that end result does not materialize, the child has no recourse but to set a new target, often times an order of magnitude less inspiring and limited by fear of again losing control of the future.
However, the problem was never that the child did something wrong to achieve the known result; it is the fact that the future is completely unknown. This should be intuitively obvious, yet for so many children and adults, the present is always an attempt at controlling what they think is the known future. There are an innumerable number of variables that impact the future, only one of which is the homework assignment or the exam facing the child. If the child were to bet their entire self-esteem on their ability to control all those variables, their self-esteem is built on sand.
Sadly, even moderate success in controlling the variables leads to even larger challenges in self-esteem. If the highs and lows in self-esteem are uncontrolled, as would be the case with self-esteem based on external factors, then self-esteem becomes something that is sought. It becomes a drug to soothe the ego.
Rather, progress itself should be the estimation metric for a child’s worth because progress is the only thing a child has in their control. While kids may be at different learning levels, all have the ability to improve upon their current skill set. (Knowledge is nothing more than a skill set.) The goal of self-esteem development is improvement, self-esteem itself is the consequence.
If progress is the barometer of self-esteem, then progress can only be created by challenge. This leads us to the fourth step.
Step 4: Risk self-esteem knowing that self-worth is the foundation.
“Aim high and hit hard.”
For self-worth-based self-esteem to grow, it must be generated by progress. Nothing more. If a kid can consistently get As on his tests, the next A on an exam should not be a source of self-esteem. Conversely, a child who consistently scores Cs can derive self-esteem from a result of a B-. A child who excels in violin or guitar, should derive self-worth from their improvement, not from their consistent excellence. Once something becomes the norm, self-esteem is no longer derived from that because there is no improvement.
A good analogy of this is lifting weights to gain muscle. If self-esteem is a muscle (as are most of our mental faculties), it must grow like a muscle. A muscle grows by challenging that muscle. If the muscle always stays within its comfort zone, it will never grow, even if that comfort zone seems to be a lot of weight.
Most trainers will tell you that, to gain muscle, you have to do all the prior sets and repetitions for the sole purpose of getting to the one rep in the one set in which your muscle is about to fail. It is in persevering as much as possible through that final rep, that your muscle get challenged. Only then does your muscle grow during the recovery period.
Similarly, one’s self-esteem must continually be challenged. To the point of failure. Only then does your self-esteem grow during the time of recovery and reflection.
While some might call this determination and perseverance, this is more precisely self-regulation. The reason for the difference is that determination and perseverance are a state of mind in which quit is not an option. However, self-regulation involves an intellectual determination, not necessarily a dogmatic determination. The ability to learn from failures, grow from mistakes, develop new strategies, are all critical to successful self-regulation.
Self-regulation is the key to increased self-esteem. As we challenge ourselves to find ways to overcome our limits, our self-esteem begins to balloon.
Step 5: Experience the self-esteem snowball.
“My effort is worth it.”
The momentum of self-esteem builds upon itself. This is the importance of looking in the mirror after each win. The child must feel the momentum. The personal improvement must become a reality. The joy of each success must constantly salivate in their mouth.
All that remains in the memory of the child is the improvement they have made, and this spurs the limitless improvement which lies ahead. This becomes the child’s identity. As each improvement leads to the next, the child develops an unshakeable self-esteem.
It is unshakeable, not because the child has achieved some social plateau or distinction. It is unshakeable because it rests on the rungs of all the self-improvement wins the child has built along the way. It rests on the knowledge that each rung was intentionally overcome through self-regulation, and finally, at it’s core, it rests on the belief that their effort is worth it. It rests on self-worth.
My favorite Hope Torch story is Guruwari’s story. This was a child who had not attended school for two years due to a serious spinal condition which caused sporadic bouts of pain. By the time, Hope Torch encountered Guruwari, she had no motivation to even participate in the smallest activity.
Our model to discover self-worth is based on small but consistent challenges given by our social worker. After a few weeks, she started participating in our programs. She began to become active and vocal in the groups. After a few months, she began to show leadership in our group. This was through no force on our part; the Hope Torch belief is that self-worth must be discovered personally, or it runs the risk of being false.
By the end of that academic year, she approached our social worker and asked if she could return to school. Again, there was no prompting on our part. Given her health condition, a return to school may not even have been possible. However, something inside her wanted it. Our social worker and the caretaker spent the next few weeks making it happen.
After a two-year gap, Guruwari was back in school, not because something external compelled her to, but because internally she wanted it. She felt she was worth it.