As much as possible, especially at the outset of a relationship with a child, find places, ideas, and people you share. Show how you are not separate from each other, but connected.
When dealing with low-self-esteem children, go into their world first to find connections. Find places in their world where you are also at home or with which you are, at least, familiar.
As a tutor trying to build good relationship with children referred to me, I was very conscious to locate similarities at the outset of our time together. The child and I might both have had dogs as pets or had brothers. The television programs these children watched I could say were the same ones I or my daughters watched.
The more significant and personal such similarities are, the more helpful they are in building a trusting relationship. This was especially true when I could talk about things I had done that were similar to things they had done. “When you were little, did you ever fight with your brothers?” or “Did you ever get in trouble?” were typical probes children sometimes made to see just how similar I might be to them.
Both my students and my own children very clearly wanted to know experiences I had had when I was their age. They used to delight in my telling them stories about how I had teased my brothers and fought with them, and about the mischief I had go into. “Tell us about your brothers,” they would say. I think their wish was not so much to hear stories for the story’s sake, but was to have me share experiences and feelings similar to ones they were having with their siblings. For us, laughing together mean laughing at similar experiences, which, though decades apart, brought about a mutual acceptance and valuing.
When I worked with children in counseling or tutoring situations, I often carried a long list of “favorite” questions: What’s your favorite television show? Your favorite holiday? Your favorite game? Your favorite color? etc., etc. Using these questions, I could begin to uncover similarities between a child and me and help make us feel we had something in common.
Searching for similarities sometimes turns up connections that reach back into our roots. Finding such connections helps build self-esteem in children, for it gives them a sense they are somehow larger than the present moment.
Mrs. Novak was a little old woman who lived down the street from us. In chatting with my children as they walked our dogs, she learned their grandfather lived in Cincinnati. Mrs. Novak had lived in Cincinnati as a child, too. It turned out one of her childhood friends has been a great-aunt to my children; in fact, Mrs. Novak had even known their grandmother when they were both children. This discovery was very special to my children because they had never known their grandmother; she had died when their father was very young. It was special because they got to hear about their grandmother from someone who knew her as a young girl in school-just like them.
After this discovery, my children would visit Mrs. Novak once a week, ostensibly for cookies and milk. Much more important, they were finding similarities between grandmother and themselves. At cookie time conversation inevitably focused on what life was like in Cincinnati when she and grandmother had been little girls.
Every year my children took Mrs. Novak a May Day basket. I don’t think my children had ever thought about May baskets before. In fact, they first learned about them from Mrs. Novak. It seems when she was a little girl in Cincinnati, on the first of May children would give little baskets of flowers to people who were special to them. When Mrs. Novak told them about May Day baskets, they told me they wanted to give Mrs. Novak one. And they did. In fact, they continued the custom for three or four years, enough to have shared a special similarity to the grandmother they would never have met, except through the sharing with Mrs. Novak.
While Mrs. Novak had made another dimension of their history real to them and built their self-esteem, they had made her feel important and valuable. The time they spent with her was obviously enjoyed by all. They were always welcome at her house.
Mrs. Novak and my children shared another similarity. They all had dogs. They used to talk about their dogs, especially the problem of keeping their dogs from breaking loose in the neighborhood. Similar problems often give people a sense of relatedness to each other.
Self-Esteem Principle: Children’s self-esteem grows when they feel a sense of oneness with other people they like and admire.