Our self-esteem is nurtured by two experiences: when one of the most important people in our lives “sees” and acknowledges us as we are, and when we sense that we are of value to other people as we are. These two perceptions are prerequisites for establishing a fruitful life on our own and together with other people.
Let me explain. In my experience, all parents love their children, but not all parents are capable of expressing their feelings equally well or relevant. Yet the expression of love is a decisive factor in the development of self-esteem. For of what use is a parental heart swelling with love if the parent cannot behave toward the child in ways that are experienced by the child as loving? It matters little what parents intend — what matters is what the child experiences. The same is true for adult relationships.
Little children freely acknowledge their need to be seen. In the playground, one-and-a-half-year-old Olivia takes her first ride down the slide (on some outdoor fitness equipment), looks at her mother, and shouts, “Watch me, Mum!” Most parents are only too willing to watch yet they inadvertently give the child something quite different than what the child is asking for.
For example, Olivia’s mother praised her daughter by saying, “Ooh, aren’t you clever! Well done!”
This comment is lovingly meant but unfortunate because it yokes “being” and “achievement.” When adults converse in this way, we say that they are “speaking at cross-purposes.” Suppose I invite a good friend for dinner and as we sip our coffee after the meal I say, “How nice it is to see you again!” only to have him answer, “Yes, you’ve certainly learned how to cook!” Clearly, we are engaged in two different conversations.
This is how Katherine feels—as if she and her mother are not communicating with each other. The girl never considered that she might need to be clever to have fun on the slide. She is in the midst of an experience, and when she says, “Watch me!” she is asking to have her experience and her existence confirmed—nothing more, nothing less. What she really wants to say is, “See me!”
Other parents express their love in a more self-centred way by saying, “Be careful now that you don’t fall and hurt yourself.” This type of perennial worrying poisons the development of self-esteem because the message the child receives is, “I don’t expect that you can manage.” It also draws the child’s attention away from his own experience and focuses it on his mother’s feelings. If the mother is generally worried, her son will almost certainly cooperate, either by becoming reluctant and anxious (straightforward cooperation) or by becoming clumsy and accident-prone or a dare-devil, thus living up to the mother’s negative expectations (inverted cooperation).
What can parents do in this situation to feed their child’s self-esteem? All Katherine’s mother needs to do is establish brief eye contact, wave, and say, “Hi, Katherine!” In this way, she would indicate that she witnessed her daughter’s experience. Katherine, in turn, would receive an important piece of information: she knows she has been “seen.” This would satisfy her need to be loved, and to have this love communicated to her.
But suppose Katherine’s mother wanted to give her child more than this acknowledgment. In that case, she could have looked closely at her daughter’s face, and if she saw pure delight, she could have said, “Katherine, that looks like great fun!” If delight was mixed with fear on her daughter’s face, she could say, “That looks like great fun . . . but it’s dangerous too, isn’t it?” What she’s doing now is giving her daughter an expression – or personal language – for her inner experience. And possessing a personal language is a prerequisite to the development of healthy self-esteem. But children only acquire a personal language when their parents take the time to look at them and verbalise their expressions and feelings with empathy.
In other words, children need to be “seen” before they can learn to express their being verbally.