Chuck Borough wrote, “Teach children to be their own bosses at a young age, and they will not follow every little boss they meet on the playground. Be generally their advisors, never their bosses.” I have debated with myself lately whether or not I was a good parent. I think all parents do that at some point, but probably more so as we get older, especially if we see our own kids making some of the same mistakes we made. (If any of my children are reading this, please don’t think I’m referring to you!) One of the greatest things we can teach our children, or better said, help them discover for themselves, is their own self-worth. Stated another way, of all the opinions people have about us, the only one that matters is the opinion we have of ourselves. Sadly, though, most of us determine our own worth by the views others have of us. And so we often live our entire lives to please and gain the admiration of our spouse, our friends, our church, our school, or our community and never end up genuinely pleasing ourselves.
I have always maintained that the most important thing we can do as a parent is to teach our children that they can live without us, or in other words, help them to become independent, functioning adults. In short, we raise our children to be secure enough to leave home but we hope they will want to come back to us – but only for a visit. I always smile when I think of a friend of mine who gave each of his kids a suitcase for their 18th birthday. It was a not-so-subtle hint that it was time for them to make it on their own. Before anyone can live independently at 18, though, they need to learn particular skills before that age. And to me, again, the most important skill a young child can learn is a sense of self-worth. A positive sense of self is best learned as a child, but even as adults we can (and should) develop and expand the good feelings we have about ourselves.
But what, exactly, is self-worth? The dictionary defines it as the sense of one’s value or worth as a person. It is somewhat synonymous with self-respect or self-esteem. Dr. Lisa Firestone points out that self-worth should be less about measuring yourself based on external actions and more about valuing your inherent worth as a person. Here is a clip from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs[i] that reminds us to focus on who we really are – not what other people think of us:
In other words, self-worth is about who you are, not about what you did or do. But don’t we all grade ourselves by what we have done, not who we are? When someone asks me to tell them about myself, I respond by saying things like, I’m retired now but I practiced law for almost 40 years. I am married to a wonderful wife, and we have five great children and 15 beautiful grandchildren. I was born in Utah, lived in Colorado, and moved to Texas in 1985. In Texas, we have lived in the Dallas, Houston, Austin and Fort Worth areas. In short, this is what I have done in my life so far. But what I don’t say is, I like to write. I have a dry sense of humor. I love sports and watching movies. I am an “early to bed, early to rise” kind of guy. I like to eat burgers and Tex-Mex. Which approach tells you more about who I really am?
Self-worth should never be confused with self-importance – that we are too important to do menial tasks or associate with certain people. We often find that people who think they are too big for the little jobs are too little for the big ones. Or as someone once said, “When a man starts singing his own praises, it’s usually a solo.”
I started this self-assessment as a parent after watching the documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor.[ii] It is based on the life of public television’s Fred Rogers, who hosted the educational pre-school TV series, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, for over 30 years. Here is a trailer for that great documentary:
I was too old to enjoy Mr. Rogers growing up, as I was 15 when his TV show began. My kids never got into him either, preferring Sesame Street instead. Watching the documentary, though, I realized some great things about Fred Rogers, including he was not afraid to get down on a child’s level, but never in a condescending way. He helped kids feel good about themselves. And he spoke the language of love. Here are some of my favorite quotes from Mr. Rogers:
“Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.”
“You know, you don’t have to look like everybody else to be acceptable and to feel acceptable.”
“How sad it is that we give up on people who are just like us.”
“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has – or ever will have – something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”
I wish I would have repeatedly told each of my children similar messages as they were growing up. So with the aid of 20/20 hindsight, here are a few “wishes” of regret I wish I would have done more of as a parent:
I wish I had more patience to let my kids fail more. I realize that sounds sort of weird, but kids learn by doing, and they learn more from their failures than their successes. I wonder how many times as my kids were learning to tie their shoes, for example, did I step in and finish the job because we were in a hurry to get somewhere. But what message did that deliver to the child? “You can’t do it so I will do it for you.” I sometimes did similar things when playing games or putting together puzzles.
When my kids accomplished something, I wish I would have emphasized the qualities it took to reach the achievement. For example, when they got good grades at school, I would compliment them for being smart. I should have praised them more for working hard, for developing problem-solving tools, for being disciplined enough to get their homework done, as so forth. Those are the skills they would need to succeed later in life. And just being smart, without developing those other skills, is rarely a formula for success.
I wish I never squelched their dreams. I think kids need to develop a sense of reasonableness, but never at the expense of dreaming. Sometimes we, as parents, unknowingly place labels or limitations on our children that unconsciously tell them their dreams are too big. I love this scene from the true story, The Pursuit of Happyness,[iii] which dramatizes this point:
I wish I would have emphasized the positive actions of my children rather than the negative. When you think about it, how often do we, as parents, tell our children no! No!! NO!!! Granted, kids need discipline and boundaries, but I’m sure I punished them more for their bad behavior than I rewarded them for the good things they did. Our kids need more sermons like this one from Chocolat[iv]:
I wish I would have let my children make more of their own choices. Many parents today, including my own children, have learned this simple technique. Let your children choose between two or more acceptable options. Give them choices like, which of these books do you want to read before bedtime? Would you rather have green beans or broccoli with dinner tonight? When we let our children choose like that, aren’t we tell them that we trust them? That their opinions matter? Then as they get older, we should start emphasizing the consequences of bad decisions. We still let them choose but allow them to face the results of those decisions, whether good or bad.
These are simple things, but these techniques will help our children develop their self-worth. All of my kids turned out well, despite my sometimes lack of skilled parenting. I give them the full credit for that. I only hope Janene and I did a few things right along the way.
[i] Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
- Production Company: Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation
- Directors: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
- Screenwriters: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
- Starring: Anna Faris, Bill Hader and Bruce Campbell
- Release date: September 18, 2009
[ii] Won’t You Be My Neighbor
- Production Company: Tremolo Productions
- Director: Morgan Neville
- Screenwriter: None credited
- Starring: Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers and Betty Aberlin
- Release date: June 29, 2018
[iii] The Pursuit of Happyness
- Production Company: Columbia Pictures, Relativity Media, and Overbrook Entertainment
- Director: Gabriele Muccino
- Screenwriter: Steve Conrad
- Starring: Will Smith, Thandie Newton and Jaden Smith
- Release date: December 15, 2006
- Production Company: Miramax, David Brown Productions, and Fat Free
- Director: Lasse Hallstrom
- Screenwriter: Robert Nelson Jacobs (based on the novel by Joann Harris)
- Starring: Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina and Johnny Depp
- Release date: January 19, 2001