Sewing the Seeds of Self-Esteem

Licensed by Creative Commons. Taken by the saltr
“Mama, can I say a bad word?”  My 6 year-old son’s word piqued my attention.  This wasn’t the first time he had asked such a question.  It certainly wouldn’t be the last.
“Sure,” I responded.
“Can I call myself a jerk?”
The question was surprising to me.  We had often talked about not swearing at someone or at each other, but that someone had never included swearing at himself.  I did the thing I often do when I’m slightly surprised and perplexed:  I got curious.
I find this is probably one of the important pieces of this conversation.  I could have told him, “Of course not!”  I could have judged.  “Why would you do such a thing?”  Instead, I got curious.  Kids have logic for things.  It is sometimes very naive logic (see “Kid Logic” on This American Life for great examples), but it is logical, and they do have reasons.

  1. Why would you call yourself a jerk?
I asked him this and I kept any judgment out of my voice.  He was asking for a reason; I would hear it.  “To be funny,” he said.  I imagined all of the ways in which he could be funny: knock-knock jokes, plays on words, jokes that defied any sort of sense whatsoever, but here was a different kind of joke: the self-deprecating one, that one that made him the lowest in the stack and the others better than him.

2. The things we say about ourselves are the things we begin to believe.
“Well . . . “ I drew out the answer while I probed my brain for an answer.  “You could say that, but why would you really want to?  Here’s the thing, sometimes I’ve done something, I really was a jerk.  In my apology, I can very seriously tell someone, ‘I was a jerk.’   But to call myself a jerk to make someone laugh. It means I make myself look worse, so someone else feels better.”

I got close to him and explained more.  I believe the things we say about ourselves are the things we begin to believe. Even when we’re joking, do we really want to believe that?  For me, this is the foundation of self-esteem: how we talk about and to ourselves when we make mistakes, and how we talk about ourselves in front of others is critical.

3. There are many ways to be funny without being self-deprecating.
“You know,” I said, “you could call yourself a jerk, and I’d never know.  I’d find other ways to be funny - because you are funny - without speaking that way to yourself.  Do you think you could do that?”  We talked about all the different ways this could happen.  In truth, kids are very creative, and when you create space to be silly and funny, they will often run with that.  That’s the exact thing we did.

I don’t know if he has called himself a jerk since then, but I’ve never heard him say that to any other kid or to himself in front or around me.  My hope is that this is one of those moments when he gets the impact of his words - not only on others, but on himself.  My hope is to weed out those small shoots of negativity before they ever really take root.  After all, this is the very beginning of self-esteem, and I want my son’s to be luminous and healthy.

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