Q: I really appreciate the way you discuss issues with Torah hashkafos, and yet you are very down-to-earth in your approach. I am in the country now, soon to return to the city. I would like to be of help to my 9-year-old daughter. I see in the bungalow colony that she doesn’t play comfortably with her peers. I was somewhat aware of this in the city, but she has one or two neighbors with whom she is friendly, and she plays with her cousins on Shabbos. I thought that was good enough, but I see now that she is too much of a follower. It worries me, because followers can end up doing things that are not good to do — and things that they themselves do not want to do. She is overly concerned with what others think of her, and she wants to “fit in” socially. I can’t buy her all that she would like to have in the way of clothing and games, and I know that having such things leads, at best, only to temporary acceptance by others. I see that children with good self-esteem don’t care if they don’t own certain things or are related to whomever; they seem to be happy with themselves.
I work in a school during the school year, so in the summer I actually have time to work with my daughter more directly to build her self-confidence. She is not the best in academic areas, so she is less stressed in the summer than she is all year when she is struggling to keep up. She has other siblings who definitely “outshine” her academically and socially, so it’s hard to compliment her in these areas.
In what way can I help her to be less of a follower without it seeming like a mussar shmuess ?
A: When individuals possess self-esteem, they may not necessarily be leaders, but they will not be followers, either, in the way you define this term. People can follow their principles with pride if they feel enough self-love to justify perhaps being different from their peers.
Helping to build a child’s self-esteem begins with avoiding continual criticism of “annoying” behavior. Whether by pulling someone’s fingers out of her mouth (if she is biting her nails), or rolling your eyes after a child’s silly comment, there are many ways a parent can be critical and not be conscious of it.
In terms of complimenting your daughter, you need to analyze what you truly appreciate about her as a person (reflecting your own values, and not someone else’s!). The more specific you are about this, the more believable your words will be. If being resourceful is important to you, for example, then a comment like “If I was stuck on a desert island, there’s no one else I would want with me but you. You could find a way to help us live there for months!” would greatly penetrate the hearer’s sense of self. My suggestion would be to actually write down a list of such positive attributes in order to have them available when no such thoughts about your child readily come to mind.
Telling stories of you and family members who weren’t afraid to be different (such as issues of shemiras Shabbos 70 years ago, or being ehrlich when there was pressure not to be), are examples of positive self-affirmation. Showing how others respect those who stick to their principles needs to be reiterated. Parents need to reinforce such behavior whenever it is displayed by their children, reflecting this self-confident attitude.
In relation to widening her circle of friends, you can reward your daughter when she invites someone over (if she is very uncomfortable doing so). You can also take your daughter with a peer to a recreational activity — be it a neighborhood pool or ice-skating rink. In that way, she will feel less self-conscious about her home or siblings, and will feel that she has something unique to offer her friend.