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Building Self-Esteem

by Laurie Block Spigel

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"I often work with schooled students who are afraid to create. They raise their pen in hand, poised above a sheet of paper, but they cannot touch pen to paper. They are convinced that whatever they write will be terrible. In art, they are convinced that they cannot draw. ..."

In our overfed American culture we are often accused of spoiling our children. Homeschoolers, and unschoolers in particular, are routinely regarded as overly permissive, as if we let our kids get away with anything, like watching TV all day long, or eating cheese puffs for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Americans sometimes have a skewed sense of entitlement, and this type of freedom is viewed as enabling that false idea of entitlement. Arrogance and selfishness is not self-esteem, even if it is proud, and, in fact, these traits may be the result of low self-esteem.

I am not a trained psychologist, only a parent and educator who works with children every day. I know what it takes to build a childís self-esteem. It is a simple formula: sustained effort at a worthwhile goal that results in achievement. Yet it is not simple at all if the child does not feel that the goal was worthwhile, or feels that the effort was insincere, or that the achievement is not laudable. In-other-words, it is the child who must be the judge. And if this formula is broken down, it is not successful. Hard work and suffering will not build self-confidence. If it did, every child who suffers in school would have high self-esteem. Hard work that is meaningless, suffering that is inflicted (such as demeaning criticism of a teacher or bullying from adults and peers), will batter a childís inner self.

I often work with schooled students who are afraid to create. They raise their pen in hand, poised above a sheet of paper, but they cannot touch pen to paper. They are convinced that whatever they write will be terrible. In art, they are convinced that they cannot draw. And they canít share their work without prefacing it with, ďI know itís terrible.Ē Where did they learn this? If you ask them, you will hear stories of rampant criticism and verbal abuse, coming from teachers, other students, and sometimes even parents who may think that they are saying what is best for their son or daughter.

Through repeated positive experiences, a studentís appetite for learning and creating can be reawakened. Begin by laughing at mistakes, and embracing them. Without mistakes we do not know what our next step should be. Those mistakes are gold! It is by correcting our mistakes, improving and revising our work, and revising our writing, that we grow and become capable of fine achievement.

I began homeschooling when my oldest son, Kalman, was midway through fourth grade. He attended a school for intellectually gifted kids, and he loved being in a place that was mentally stimulating. But he couldnít read or write as quickly as the other kids. He would feel shattered when he saw the two-page stories that other kids wrote in less time than it took him to get a few sentences down on paper. Because of school deadlines, he always felt that the work he handed in was of poor quality. It didnít matter what the teacher said; he was not proud of his own work. When we took him out of school, I promised him that he would be the judge of his own work, and no one else. He could work on a story or a report and continue until he felt it was done. Eagerly, he tackled a new subject right away, choosing to write a report on the Ice Age. In school he would have had two months to complete the project. At home, with plenty of time to focus, I thought he would need about three months, but it was more than six months later before he was finished. And he was so proud! Instead of two shabby pages, he had five pages written in cursive, with illustrations, an eight-source bibliography, and a handmade cover. He showed it off to everyone!