Helping Kids Trade Self-Esteem for Christ-Esteem
By LESLIE LUDY
When I was twelve, I attended a youth group session in which all of us middle-schoolers were encouraged to go home and look ourselves in the mirror and make the declaration, “I love you!” to our reflection. It seemed that everywhere I went, at school and at church, well-meaning adults were trying to help me build up my self-esteem.
But as a lonely and rather awkward pre-teen, none of the self-esteem pep talks every worked for me. No matter how I tried to “discover all the beauty I possessed inside” as a popular Whitney Houston song exhorted me, the only thing I ever felt was a clear sense that I just didn’t measure up. As a child, I had been ruthlessly teased about my appearance, and as a pre-teen I was ridiculed daily about my lack of style and name-brand clothes. How vividly I remember frequently crying myself to sleep, riddled with insecurity, as my parents attempted to comfort me, desperately wanting to help me but having no clear answers.
Now that I am a mother, the very thought of any of my children going through a similar experience is enough to make my stomach tighten into knots. Like most moms, I would do just about anything to protect my child from feeling the misery of rejection and ridicule.
But we live in a society that promotes insecurity. Even from a young age, our children are often led to believe that if they don’t look a certain way or have the right material things, their life is not worthwhile or valuable. When I was in fifth grade I was told by a group of mocking boys that I was “gross.” The negative effect it had upon me lasted for many years.
Because of experiences like these, many parents today have become determined to protect their children from these damaging culture messages. But often, their solution is not a Biblical one.
A Closer Look at the Self-Esteem Message
The ever popular self-esteem message often seems like a perfect answer to the insecurity that so often targets our kids. After all, if little girls can learn to love themselves regardless of whether society applauds them, they won’t struggle with low self-esteem (and the poor choices that result from this attitude) as they grow older. And if little boys can learn to have unshakable confidence in themselves, they won’t wallow in self-condemnation and bring their future marriages and families down in the process.
But contrary to popular belief, teaching our children how to love and feel good about themselves is not the solution to overcoming insecurity. Yes, it is important for them to understand how precious they are in God’s sight — so valuable, in fact, that He gave His only Son to rescue them. Our children are valuable because they are made in the image of God; they are His creation. His love for us is truly unfathomable. And when our children give their lives to Jesus, they become children of the King — they are redeemed and made into royalty through the work of the Cross. But when we make “feeling good about yourself” a focal point for our kids, we take their eyes off Christ and encourage them to become wrapped up in themselves.
Scripture tells us that we are not to have confidence in ourselves, but in Christ only. (See Philippians 3:3.) In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that he counts all his personal accomplishments “as rubbish” compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ. (See Philippians 3:8.)
Jesus does not mince words on this point: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Lk. 9:23), and “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Mat. 10:38).
It may seem hard to believe that self-denial, rather than self-esteem, could be the solution to insecurity. But when we let self fade into the background and become consumed with Jesus Christ, our insecurities will melt away. We no longer look to ourselves—our own merit, talent, beauty, or uniqueness — to find confidence. Instead, we learn to find our confidence in who He is, rather than in who we are.
Major Ian Thomas wrote:
The Christian life can be explained only in terms of Jesus Christ, and if your life as a Christian can still be explained in terms of you — your personality, your willpower, your gift, your talent, your money, your courage, your scholarship, your dedication, your sacrifice, or your anything — then although you may have the Christian life, you are not yet living it.
And Charles Spurgeon said:
If a soul has any beauty, it is because Christ has endowed that soul with His own, for in ourselves we are deformed and defiled! There is no beauty in any of us but what our Lord has worked in us.
Our culture wants us to believe that we all have beauty and merit within ourselves, and that if we could only learn to love ourselves just the way we are, we would be confident and happy. But the reality is, as Spurgeon so straightforwardly put it, we do not possess any beauty or goodness of our own accord. (See Psalm 14:3; 16:2; 53:3.) The only beauty or merit we can ever have is Jesus Christ’s. And His loveliness will only come shining through our lives when self has gotten out of the way. (Remember, we must decrease so that He might increase!)
So rather than trying to build up child’s our self-esteem and teach him to feel good about himself (which doesn’t produce lasting confidence anyway) we must teach him how to become focused on Jesus Christ instead of himself.
Remember that to “deny ourselves” according to the Biblical pattern literally means to lose sight of ourselves and our own interests. Our children will only gain lasting security when they look away from themselves and toward Jesus Christ. The question “who am I?” is not nearly as important as the question “who is He?”!
Living in a self-consumed culture, this is no easy task to accomplish. But I have found that a few simple principles can go a long way to help me build Christ-confidence, rather than self-confidence, in my children:
Encourage without Flattering
When my children produce a piece of artwork, excel in their schoolwork, or come up with a creative idea, I love to shower them with affirmation and encouragement. I want them to know that their work and talents are noticed and appreciated, and that I take delight in seeing them cultivate the gifts and abilities God has given them. Godly encouragement gives them the motivation and confidence to spread their wings and try new things. I always want my kids to know that I am their biggest cheerleader. When they do new tricks on the swing set, I try to always watch intently and cheer enthusiastically. When they perform, Eric and I are their devoted cheering section. And when I notice them exhibiting honorable behavior, I go out of my way to notice and praise them for it.
Yet I have learned that there is a big difference between encouraging and flattering my kids. Encouragement is a sincere expression of appreciation and recognition for a job well done or good effort made. Flattery, on the other hand, strokes self and causes a child to think more highly of themselves than they should.
For example, if I tell my daughter, “Great job at your choir performance! You were so much better than anyone else up on that stage!” I am setting her up to look down on others while thinking highly of herself. But if I say, “You did a great job up there! What a great choir you are a part of!” it encourages and blesses her while also showing honor to the other kids involved in the performance.
Part of encouraging my children in a godly way is teaching them how to become encouragers themselves. If my son excitedly shows his sister a new Lego creation he made, I keep a close eye on the conversation to make sure that she responds with enthusiasm, even if Lego creations aren’t really her thing. If she is less-than-enthusiastic, I pull her aside and gently remind her that if she had worked hard on something, she would want her brother to be excited about it. Usually after this reminder, she will choose to go find her brother and tell him that he did great job on his building project.
Another important part of godly encouragement is helping my children use their gifts and talents to bless others, rather than simply to be noticed and appreciated. Is my daughter a good painter? I’ll encourage her to paint a picture for one of her friends who is feeling lonely. Is my son a good singer? I’ll give him the opportunity to sing for elderly patients in our local nursing home as a way of using his gift to bless others.
Godly encouragement can help boost children’s confidence without puffing up their pride. It can also help them learn how to encourage and bless those around them instead of becoming consumed with their own unique abilities.
Help Them Give Their Gifts Back to God
I used to ask my children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but in recent years, I have changed it to a new question: “What do you think God wants you to be when you grow up?” My desire for my children is that they would surrender their lives fully and completely to God. I don’t want them to pursue their own happiness, but God’s glory. If there is an area that they are especially good at, I will often ask them to prayerfully consider how they might use that special gift to spread the message of the Gospel or help others.
For a couple of years, Hudson had a dream of one day making entertaining Lego movies. I began to challenge him to think about ways in which he could make Lego movies that would lead people closer to Jesus. After considering the question for a while, Hudson caught a vision for making Lego Bible story movies, as well as Lego movies of Christian classics such as The Pilgrim’s Progress. As a result of our many conversations about this, he came to the conclusion that anything he put his time, effort, and talent into should be not just to entertain someone, but to lead them closer to the Truth. I was delighted to see him catch a vision for using his gifts and interests for the glory of God.
Everywhere we turn, we are told that in order to be good moms we must cultivate a strong sense of self-esteem in our children, and teach them how to live for their own happiness. But the Jesus says something very different. “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it” (Mk. 8:35). Let us always remember that the greatest freedom and fulfillment comes on the far side of the Cross.