Parents today make considerable efforts to raise confident kids with healthy self-esteems. But what about humility? How can parents build up their child's self-confidence without fostering attitudes of arrogance or entitlement? And in our increasingly competitive culture, is developing humility as a character trait even on most parents' radars?
If we look at humility as the willingness to use one's power and influence in the service of another, then the first step in teaching our kids humility is by modeling it.
"They notice everything. Every time we yell in traffic or fight with our spouse or use our position and power as parents to talk down to our kids versus instruct our kids, they notice," said Steve Mesmer, who with his wife, Cyndi, co-founded The Art of Living Counseling Center in Crystal Lake. "They also notice the times we hold a door for an elderly man, serve at a soup kitchen, volunteer to coach a team, act lovingly toward our spouse, and speak kindly to the waitress that got our order wrong. Humility starts at home with us, the parents."
The Mesmers have five children and, in addition to running their own counseling center, teach classes and speak on the subjects of marriage and parenting.
Many parents err on the side of building competent, powerful kids, Steve Mesmer said.
"Most parents are very comfortable building their children's self-esteem, and continually speaking into their kids' lives how smart, attractive, strong and amazing they are," he said. "When we stay focused on this seemingly upbeat path of parenting, we risk developing the attitude of entitlement in our kids."
The entitlement comes in many forms, with children believing they have "the right to certain privileges: good grades, to win, to never feel the sting of disappointment, to acquire more stuff, to have an easy life, to have my favorite cereal stocked in the pantry at all times, and on and on it can go," Steve Mesmer explained. "This level of entitlement is common and unfortunately damaging to the emotional health of our children."
For Cory Fosco, and his wife, Cyndi, of Elk Grove Village, raising confident, moral and humble children has been a top priority ever since their kids were young. When family and friends take time to attend one of their sporting, musical, educational or religious events, the kids make sure to acknowledge the effort. They show their appreciation with a simple thank you, a hug or by including the person in the moment. Greater value is placed on personal relationships than on events or accomplishments.
Cory says he and Cyndi talk with their kids, Frederic, age 12, and Lily, age 10, about the value of cheering others on.
When the kids' cousin made the dean's list, Frederic and Lily each sent him a congratulatory email.
"When our kids accomplish something, we absolutely celebrate their victories. But we also help them realize the importance of celebrating others' accomplishments."
Frederic and Lily, who both sing, play various instruments and write their own music, won 2012 Schaumburg's Got Talent, and have each enjoyed success in their various music endeavors thus far.
Sometimes, when attention is given to one child for a particular accomplishment, siblings may feel neglected or compare themselves unfavorably. Cory says these moments can become life lessons.
"Communication is key. In identifying the feelings of each child and demonstrating the value of celebrating each other's successes, our kids can learn humility," he says.
Mesmer explains that another aspect of humility is a willingness to "lower" ourselves.
"Our pride will tell us to stand up for ourselves, to demand to be seen and heard. A humble person knows they are important regardless if they are seen and heard and can set that station aside momentarily to serve another. Maybe the act of service is to de-escalate an argument, or to allow another to go ahead of you, or to include an outsider in a game or conversation. Humility allows us to hold our own dignity in high regard and simultaneously behave in ways that celebrates the dignity of another."
Cory and his wife recently saw Frederic model humility by being willing to share the spotlight with Lily. Frederic had a solo gig, but he asked Lily to perform with him at that show. Although the attention would have been placed just on him, he wanted his sister to be included, not just so she could feel the success but also because he recognizes the value she brings to him as a person and a musician.
A third aspect of humility is social. Mesmer says that when we teach our kids that they are worthwhile and gifted and that their gifts are to be used in the service of their peers and not solely for themselves, their sense of self expands. And so does their view of the world.
"We can create a culture of service to others in our families. Maybe you can sponsor a child, run a 5K to support a local charity, or volunteer in some capacity with your children. Doing so expands their vision to take in more than themselves," Mesmer says.
Cyndi, Frederic, and Lily have been delivering Meals on Wheels to homebound seniors for almost 10 years. Cyndi says that serving others helps teach their kids humility, how to appreciate those in need, and provides them with personal experiences with people they might not normally encounter on a regular basis.
Mesmer says parents need to let their kids know they are proud of them when they catch them acting in humble ways.
"Marking the occasion encourages similar behaviors in the future, and sends our kids a message that we value treating others with dignity. This simple but intentional gesture on our part as parents is one way we can use our position of influence and power to better serve our children to become more thoughtful and less entitled people."