Q: As children return to school, I can easily see how they are settling into their familiar roles. The academic ones are looking forward to using (and, unfortunately, sometimes flaunting) their excellent learning abilities. The “social” children want to catch up on their friends’ adventures during their time off and greatly enjoy these interactions. But our children, who are neither social nor academic, seem to be somewhat at a loss. How can parents help such children develop a positive self-image and sense of belonging?
A: To help a child create an identity — or a positive sense of self-worth, to be more exact — can be a process; it is not a badge that one wears. Priorities change as one develops, and interests change. One’s son can identify himself as being the class (or family) genius at age 10, and give up that vision at age 15. One’s daughter can be very academically focused, and then totally enter a world of social interactions, greatly diminishing her focus on schoolwork (or vice versa).
Wise parents need to observe their child’s growth process and stress what is positive, when the general direction is a constructive one. However, if a child lacks enthusiasm and exhibits fears or discomfort when returning to school, parents need to better investigate this situation.
If there are no actual issues with classmates or teachers, or difficulties with schoolwork, the area of a child’s sense of importance and belonging needs to be addressed. What is important to your child? What mitzvah illuminates his or her neshamah? A mitzvah or an act of chessed could inspire your child with a sense of enthusiasm and motivation.
Though none of us fully knows our purpose in this world, Hashem may give us hints as to where we should spend our moments during our temporary sojourn in Olam Hazeh. As stated in Chovos Halevavos, Shaar Habitachon, perek 3: Every person has an inborn preference for a certain type of occupation or business, as Hashem has implanted within his nature his love and natural affection for it.
With that in mind, a parent can offer ideas. Perhaps suggest weekly visits to a nearby nursing home with actual goals involved, such as using music or other forms of creative interaction to cheer the residents. Or an artistic child can give art lessons (at no cost) to a neighbor’s child who needs attention.
If your child accepts these suggestions and acts on them, be sure to mention these achievements to another relative within earshot of the child, or print out and display certificates reflecting these accomplishments.
On a deeper level, the message we give ourselves reflecting intrinsic self-worth is a spiritual one. Since our neshamos are an actual part of Hashem, the mere fact that one is a Yid — a ben or bas melech — is reason enough to feel self-worth. Thus, although there will be days when we (unfortunately) are not able to fulfill our potential (for whatever reason), we still need to be b’simchah, joyous at the awareness of our ever-existing spiritual potential. Just as Hashem has unconditional love for all of us, we need to have unconditional love for ourselves (even though we are limited and imperfect). This is a concept that is essential to stress to our children, and it is something that adults need to internalize as well.