May we be them, may we raise them, may we teach them!
It has just registered with me today that a phrase that I heard consistently throughout childhood was, “she loves herself sick!”, and it wasn’t a celebration, it was a put-down. This wasn’t aimed at me, but more of a warning about how not to behave. And I’m sure I am not alone in this. “He thinks pretty highly of himself”, “she thinks she’s all that”. We come from a society where it is seen as a personality flaw to have confidence and pride in yourself, for any reason. I’m guilty of it myself! I’ve had thoughts about a student who has shown him or herself to be a little cocky, thinking that they need to be brought down a peg. Well, I guess I have been a product of my environment.
I note that in all of the professional learning and teacher training I have done in student wellbeing, trauma, disabilities, and so on, not once has there been a focus on developing self-love in a child; and yet how many of us now find ourselves as adults in this situation where we are trying to break our habits of negative self-talk? The Growth Mindset approach comes close, but it doesn’t really explicitly address this idea. I imagine how different my life might have been if my self-confidence had been nurtured by those adults in my life, and it makes me realise that we have the potential to change the self image of our future adults by modeling and encouraging a strong sense of self-worth and self-compassion for our children in the classroom and in our homes.
Of course, no-one ever purposely undermined my sense of self. Those who made comments like those listed above just wanted me to be humble; to ensure that I didn’t put myself above others. It’s a balancing act, that’s for sure! Children are filled with so many mixed messages, it’s like the Coronavirus in education messages from our Government, but for all of childhood! See, I was a pretty child, and as I grew up, I had what most people around me saw as the “ideal” body. I was told constantly that I was “beautiful” and “hot”. I had one major female role model in my life who would introduce me by me dress size throughout my late teens and early 20s! “This is my Grandaughter, Chelle. She wears a size 6! That’s a size 2 in the United States!” The same Grandmother would consistently make comments about other people’s weight, bad dress sense, and lack of attention to their appearance. I was warned not to start eating cream buns from the high school canteen, because I would undoubtedly start putting on weight. I needed to “take care of myself”!
So, as far as I knew, my self-worth was connected solely to the way I looked. I mean, I know that I was loved for more than that now; and the people who said these things thought that they were building me up. But when this fixation on physical appearance is coupled with “she loves herself sick”, and statements by the same female role model to herself in the mirror along the lines of “you’re so disgusting, you make me sick”, what is a young girl to think? Of course, I developed eating disorders, and a terrible relationship with myself. I also grew older, and, with age, looks fade away, and when your self-worth has been based upon beauty, you have to scramble to find another way to hold your head high. Of course it can be done. It would just be easier if we could skip that step!
I will make the point here that I don’t believe that this is just a “girl thing”. Of course, my personal experience was very much related to the female perspective, but I have seen first hand how low self-esteem can impact a young boy’s experiences of everything at school, and then there is a whole other issue for children who do not identify with the gender that they have been issued. Whatever the case , building an appreciation for kindness, empathy, courage, and the other things that make the world better but that can’t be seen from the outside, will go a long way to building up all children.
These little people in our care need to know how worthy they are right from the beginning, and this is a difficult task for those who come from homes where self-love is frowned upon. We need to find a compromise for these conflicting world views, and build students up, whilst teaching them to also be kind and compassionate towards others. The messages should not be mixed, but balanced.
I propose that we start by getting children to list their own strengths. What a joy it is to have a sharing circle where everyone has to say something positive about a classmate. In the past, I have had children begging me to do this activity when we haven’t done it for a while. They love the way they feel, hearing someone say such kind things about them. But now I realise that I am just reinforcing their need for other people’s approval when the focus is on what other people think. From now on, I will have them first say something positive about themselves (unrelated to anything about appearances or possessions), and THEN make a comment about someone else. I hope that I can teach them that their perception of their own identity is not less important than how others see us. In fact, it’s the most important thing of all. We need to remind children that the people in their lives will come and go – the only person we are ever guaranteed to remain in the company of is ourselves, so we need to feel good about who that person is.
I have clear recollections of thinking to myself “if I wasn’t me, I wouldn’t want to be friends with me” from the age of 4. I thought I was so annoying – my voice, the things I said. When I got older it was because I showed too much gum when I smiled, and I smiled too big in photos. It was the way my thighs rubbed together at the top. It was because I didn’t have the right branded clothes, or because of where I lived. Oh…My…God what a relief to be free of those attitudes and judgments I held over myself! And what a lesson for me when I have the job of raising my own children, and teaching others! Imagine if we could help a whole generation to skip these feelings of not being “enough”.
As teachers, we are certainly taught to separate a child’s behaviour from the child, and there is a great deal of value in this. We use compassion to examine reasons why the child may be presenting with certain behaviours. Imagine if we could get the child to stop and have a think about some of these things himself! (I use “he” because I have a particular child in my mind as I process this) If we could remind the child that yes, his medication has worn off, but he is also missing his Dad, he only ate sugar-filled foods at lunch time, and the maths we did in the middle session was really hard. Have some compassion for yourself, mate! Give yourself a break! Would he take some pressure off himself? Would he find it easier to get through the day without so much disruption to others?
I seriously believe that if we could teach people to treat themselves as they would a small child, they would be halfway down the path of self-compassion. I am on a Stage 3 class this year, and I regularly hear the phrase “I’m too dumb”. I wonder what they would be saying to a kindy student who said those words out loud? Yes, we need to teach a growth mindset, and to teach them to learn from mistakes and to step outside their comfort zones, but imagine how much more willing they might be to do these things if they first believed that they were worthy of anything! Perhaps if they all brought in a photo of themselves as a small child, and I gave them the task of caring for and nurturing that child, it would open up a brand new understanding of self-love and compassion? We probably need to also remove some of the focus on competition from our vernacular as well. If children didn’t compare themselves constantly to others, they would have no reason to feel less than, or better than, anyone else. Without competition against others, we would be satisfied with where we are on our learning journey, striving only to better our own achievements as opposed to being better than others.
If we balanced our praise and support of individual children with kindness and service to others, gratitude practices, and a growth mindset, I am sure we would have an increase in academic outcomes, fewer behaviour challenges in the classroom and in the home, and a better society and future for humanity. I have written about children collecting their pieces of armour and numbing themselves throughout childhood and into adulthood, but maybe self-love trumps all of these other concepts?
I always come back to this point that we need to lead by example. If you are not practicing self-compassion, or if you still have those negative voices popping into your head more than the other ones who jump in and say “shut the hell up, and have some compassion towards yourself”, then you need to have a look at that. Because children know. They know when we say one thing and do another, and they will pick up on it as a weakness.
Love yourself first, because that’s who you’ll be spending the rest of your life with.Author Unknown
And, get rid of those sayings “he’s a bit cocky”, “she thinks she’s better than everyone else” and so on. Replace “she loves herself sick” with “if you don’t love yourself, you will make yourself sick”.
Be strong, be kind, be compassionate. Be the example.