As a long time educator and parent of 5 children, we have seen phases of how to approach “growing” children into capable, contributing adults come and go and then return for another cycle. These phases focus on terms and topics such as “growing children’s self-esteem”, delivering praise, determining behavioral consequences, becoming “helicopter parents”, etc. Just today, I saw an ASCD article about delivering praise and heard the term “helicopter parents” on a radio talk show. SO, I have revived an article I wrote in the 1990s which seems as apropos today as it was many years ago.

Self-esteem is the elusive factor that many researchers have identified as critical to young people becoming “high” or “low” risk members of society. Success, feeling good, doing well, or the dictionary definition “having a favorable impression of oneself” might lead us to believe that we only add to our self- esteem when things go well. Since we know that “high risk” kids are generally ones with low self- esteem, the key question becomes, how do we increase, add to, raise, or enhance self-esteem for children — or maybe, the question is: How do children develop their own self-esteem?

H. Stephen Glenn, an expert who has dedicated his work toward training and authoring books to “Develop Capable Young People” by helping adults become more capable in their skills for working with children defines CAPABLE as an essential piece of self-esteem. “People need to believe they are CAPABLE.” How does one develop this belief? Is it done for them or by them? Could it be that each of us develops our own self-esteem – our own perception of who we are and what we can do? Could it be that others can’t do that for us? Oh, we can get feedback from others but, each of us filters that feedback like water through a purifier. What goes in is not what comes out!

Research tells us that much of our sense of CAPABLE comes from knowing we can have difficult times and learn or grow from them; that life has bumps and we have the skills, stamina, courage, and whatever else we need to survive them. If we believe self-esteem develops in this way, could it be that the pressure adults (teachers and parents) take on to “ease the way” through life for kids is exactly the opposite of what should be done? Would it be better for children to learn that life is full of mistakes, little failures, disappointments and — that they are CAPABLE of dealing with them. Wouldn’t it be better for children to encounter smaller difficulties earlier and in smaller doses when support from adults is both available and accepted than to wait for larger ones to become life threatening?

Think about the straight A student who has everything going for him or her; class president, athletic hero, tremendous parent involvement – who gets a B or breaks up with a steady friend – and decides the world has come to an end. Have we taught children that the only time they can see themselves as CAPABLE is when the world is problem or disappointment free? As you think about what to do when situations in children’s lives require adults’ to get involved, you might want to ask yourself two questions: 1) Will s/he believe her/himself as CAPABLE as a result of what I do? 2) Will s/he truly be more CAPABLE? If the answer is “yes”, do it!

Children who experience the “real” world early in their development will develop the coping skills and attitudes that support them throughout their lives. Children who see themselves as CAPABLE are not the children who make decisions that will hurt them!

I wonder if this is not just as true for some of the adults in today’s world.

Helen Ryley