Personal growth

Where does self-actualization start?

This week I am listening to a program called Building Self-Esteem in Your Child. No, I do not have any kids. But Ryan does, which makes me a part-time mother figure of sorts. So I figured it couldn’t hurt to learn some basic parenting skills.

I wasn’t really expecting to hear about self-actualization on an audio CD about parenting, but I guess given the topic of self-esteem, it makes sense. When I think about the factors that contribute to the suppression of our true selves, I most often think of the peer pressure typically encountered in junior high and high school, or the recurrent themes in advertising and popular culture that tell us we need to look like everyone else or own the right clothes, shoes, gadgets, etc. But the program touches on another factor I hadn’t previously considered. As children, our self-concept can be jeopardized by well-meaning parents and teachers who fail to validate our feelings. The speaker gives an example of a child who hits a playmate for taking his toy. When the parent responds simply by telling the child not to hit others or punishes the child, the feelings that led to the action are invalidated. The child learns that it’s wrong to express or even feel anger. The speaker suggests helping the child find a better way to express his feelings, one that does not involve hitting. (Certainly this applies to a first offense, and subsequent defiance or aggressive behavior would be dealt with differently, which is not the focus of the program.)

As I started thinking about the ways parents — unwittingly or otherwise — thwart the development of their children’s self-concept, it reminded me of the movie Dead Poets Society, in which the main character commits suicide because his father forbids him to study theatre. Of course this is an extreme example, but there are countless cases of individuals whose creative tendencies aren’t nurtured, who aren’t taught how to express themselves, who never learn that it’s okay to be themselves, without apology. And so many of us struggle to learn these things later in life. We pay psychiatrists thousands of dollars to help us learn that it’s okay to be who we are, that we can live our lives according to our own design, that we don’t have to bend to the expectations and unfulfilled dreams of someone else.

In Building Self-Esteem in Your Child, the speaker cites a study that found that 80% of children entering first grade had high self-esteem. By fifth grade, this number fell to 20%. And by junior high, it was down to 5%. Clearly, these early years are crucial in developing one’s self-concept. How much different would our lives be if we were taught to properly express ourselves at a young age?

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