Early Childhood Education
Self-Esteem and Self-Concept
Self-concept and self-esteem are considered important to children’s development and education. These two terms are often mistakenly used interchangeably, yet they are in many ways inextricably intertwined. Self-concept is a broad category, of which self-esteem is a component. Self-concept refers to the perceptions, feelings, and attitudes that a person has about himself or herself. Self-concept includes how individuals see their personal characteristics such as empathy and caring, their moral virtues, their gender, ethnic, and religious identity, and their physical appearance and social power. Self-concept encompasses one’s sense of competence in gradually differentiated domains such as cognitive, social, and physical realms. This sense of competence contributes to self-esteem. Self-esteem refers to the evaluations individuals make about themselves and encompasses their judgments about their self-worth. Self-esteem is thus an integral part of one’s self-concept.
Although we often refer to a general level of self-esteem, on closer inspection, self-esteem may vary according to domain. For example, children may have high self-esteem based on their social skills and circle of friends, but they may have low self-esteem in academic or physical domains. Even more specifically, children may feel good about their reading ability, but have lower self-evaluations regarding their math ability. Low self-esteem in one domain, such as athletic ability, may have little effect on an individual if it is not considered important in a particular family, peer group, or culture. On the other hand, in families or cultures where athletic skills are important or where skills that underpin academic ability are highly valued, low self-esteem in these relevant areas may have increasingly devastating effects as children move through school.
Factors Affecting the Development of Self-Esteem and Self-Concept
The development of self-concept and self-esteem are influenced by a variety of factors. These include cultural values, the social context and significant others, the physical environment and opportunities to acquire skills and abilities as well as the individual’s physical appearance. Parents’ and teachers’ expectations also contribute to the development of self-concept and self-esteem.
Views of self vary among cultures, subcultures, and families within cultures. Self-esteem and self-concept are affected by possessing culturally valued traits, such as striving or helpfulness. In Western cultures, one goal is to help children become more independent and to achieve—particularly in academic or athletic domains. In contrast to the importance of becoming independent and achieving for oneself, in some cultures and families, connectedness and relationships with family and community are more salient. For some, self-concept and self-esteem are based more on seeing oneself as a part of a web of relevant social relationships than on seeing oneself as unique. In some cultures, self-esteem may be based more on harmony, on fitting in with a relevant group, and on caring than on excelling and being competitive. These two contrasting views of cultural influences should not be taken as polar opposites, however. An alternative view of the self is possible wherein both autonomy and interdependence are important to varying degrees depending on the circumstances.
Self-concept and self-esteem develop largely within a social context. The interpersonal environment that caregivers provide influences the development of self-concept and self-esteem. The quality, consistency, and timing of adults’ responses to infants may carry messages about trust, caring, and the value of the infant. Caregiver responsiveness may also convey information about young children’s capacity to become competent and to control their environment. When caregivers respond positively and consistently to infants’ cues, infants may come to learn that they are of value and that they can influence their social environment. This may contribute to beginning feelings of self-worth and competence.
Parental warmth, acceptance, and especially approval are associated with higher levels of self-esteem as children get older. The type and quality of parenting also affects self-esteem. Parents who make reasonable demands that are accepted by children, but who do not impose unreasonable restrictions and who allow their children some choice and control (often termed authoritative parenting), generally have children with higher self-esteem than parents who are authoritarian or permissive—at least in mainstream Western cultures. Consequently, training in effective parenting where parents learn to be more accepting of their children’s feelings and behaviors may result in higher self-esteem for their children. On the other hand, what some view as authoritarian parenting may in other cultures be perceived as caring and loving and may, therefore, have beneficial effects on feelings of esteem in those cultures (Chao, 1994). Indeed, some researchers suggest that the construct of self-esteem is a particularly Western attribute.
Interestingly, regardless of gender, perceived physical attractiveness—even more than actual physical attractiveness—has been found to be the domain most highly correlated with self-esteem from early childhood onward. Furthermore, adults have been found to give more positive attention to physically attractive infants and toddlers than to those deemed to be less physically attractive.
The physical environment also contributes to self-concept and self-esteem. As children grow older, their self-esteem may increase if they are able to interact successfully with developmentally appropriate materials that provide a challenge within an encouraging environment. Their successful interaction with appropriately challenging materials as well as with supportive adults and peers allows for perceptions of competence and consequently enhanced self-esteem.
Parents’ and teachers’ expectations are likely to influence the development of children’s self-esteem as well. The provision of materials and activities for children to learn and master new tasks not only provides opportunities for them to see themselves as competent but also conveys subtle clues about adults’ expectations. Children who see that they are given less challenging materials than others may wonder whether adults do not expect them to succeed. They may suffer self-esteem decrements as a result. Although young children generally hold higher expectations for themselves than do their teachers, when teachers make their evaluations salient, such as pointing out children whose work is best, children’s self-evaluations are more likely to reflect those of their teachers. In such an environment, children whose work is not praised or displayed may come to feel unworthy. Furthermore, teaching strategies, such as ability grouping and public comparison of children’s work, also subtly reveal teacher expectations and often result in changes to children’s perceptions of self-worth. Teachers’ expectations and comments about children’s qualities, such as kindness, helpfulness, and flexibility, as well as those about tangible successes, such as art projects or learning to read, also influence children’s perceptions of their competence and self-worth.
In addition, learning academic and social skills so that children feel competent is likely to contribute to enhancing children’s self-esteem. Evidence that teachers value all the cultures and families from which their children come also helps children feel worthy.
Effects of Self-Esteem and Self-Concept
Research suggests that both self-concept and self-esteem are related to how a child approaches a task. For example, children who see themselves as competent may approach tasks eagerly. In contrast, children whose self-esteem is less robust may shy away from approaching new tasks, events, or people. They become frustrated easily and see themselves as helpless. Consequently, self-esteem and self-concept have implications for motivation and learning—even for preschoolers as young as age two. Children will choose to engage in activities that make them feel worthy.
Parents and teachers in a number of cultures often attempt to enhance children’s self-esteem by praising them, though what is praised often varies. Several cautions are in order here. First, praising children’s ability and telling them how smart they are may have devastating effects when they do not succeed. For children whose ability is praised, lack of success at a task is likely to make them question their ability and make them feel they are incompetent and unworthy. On the other hand, praising children’s effort or the strategies they use rather than praising their ability has more positive long-term consequences for maintaining their persistence and consequently their self-esteem. In fact, Japanese children are more commonly praised for effort and are more likely to persevere. Children can modify their strategies and level of effort, whereas ability is something they cannot control. Second, what adults often overlook is that praise may make children dependent on adults for judgments about their self-worth. When this happens, children’s self-esteem may suffer since they do not learn to judge their merits on their own. Third, sometimes when praise is used in a manipulative manner—as it is often done in American classrooms, to call attention to children who are doing what they are supposed to do, like waiting quietly—the praised child may feel embarrassed, negatively affecting self-esteem. Teachers who express sincere appreciation of children’s positive qualities, such as helpfulness, persistence, interest or curiosity and who expand on these qualities are more likely to strengthen positive self-feelings.
In the United States, at least, many attempts have been made to develop educational programs to enhance self-esteem. Advocates for such programs have argued that by increasing self-esteem, children will be more likely to approach new tasks and learn better. Others have argued that acquiring the skills and abilities that are important within the culture enhances one’s self-esteem and that therefore programs aimed specifically at improving self-esteem are unnecessary. They argue further that an overemphasis on self-esteem enhancement may divert time and attention from teaching important skills and abilities on which realistic self-esteem is based. Indeed, programs based on developing cognitive skills in domains of importance have been found to be more effective in increasing self-esteem than those that focus mainly on self-esteem enhancement.
Because the approval of significant others is highly correlated with high self-esteem, some have suggested that significant others be helped to find ways to demonstrate their approval or that other figures be found who can provide needed support. However, as noted above, effusive praise is likely to be counterproductive compared to recognition of genuine achievement or salient inner qualities.
In Western cultures, another way of enhancing self-esteem is to provide opportunities for self-direction as children mature. Children can be helped to expand their sense of participation and their sense of control and power over problems that they see in the larger environment. For example, children can be helped to take small steps toward overcoming prejudice, waste, poverty, and so on. The ensuing sense of accomplishment in areas of consequence are likely to influence children’s sense of competence and their resultant self-esteem.
Further Readings: Chao, Ruth (1994). Beyond parental control and authoritarian parenting style: Understanding Chinese parenting through the cultural notion of training. Child Development 65(4), 1111-1119; Curry, Nancy E., and Carl N. Johnson (1990). Beyond self-esteem: Developing a genuine sense of human value. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Harter, Susan (1998). The development of self representations. In Nancy Eisenberg, ed., Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 3- Social, emotional, and personality development. 5th ed. New York: Wiley, pp. 554-617; Marshall, Hermine H. (1995). Beyond “I like the way....” Young Children 50(2), 26-28; Marshall, Hermine H. (2001). Cultural influences on the development of self-concept: Updating our thinking. Young Children 56(6), 9-22.