Self-Acceptance: The Gospel Alternative to Self-Esteem
As parents it is easy to get pulled into ways of child rearing that take us and our children away from Gospel truths. One myth that seems to get recycled with regularity is the need for parents to help their child develop high self-esteem.
Self-esteem can be defined as confidence in your worth or ability, a measure of how valuable or worthwhile you see yourself. Your sense of self begins and ends with you and is dependent on your ability to hang onto the essence of who you are. A parent aiming to develop high self-esteem in a child will look for opportunities to affirm a child’s strengths and applaud what he or she does right. However, if a child is discouraged or feels like they lack in a certain area, this is damaging to their quest to build self-esteem, and that has to be avoided.
If a child’s sense of self is dependent on their performance and ability to stand out among others, then both parent and child have to avoid experiences that would invite you both to accept limitations and weaknesses. Unless a child learns how to welcome their limitations and weaknesses in the safety of the home, they will not navigate the world with strength.
Good biblical thinking directs a parent to help their child build self-acceptance rooted in a growing communion with God. After the Apostle Paul writes a lengthy grounded summary of all we have in Christ (Romans 1-11), he encourages us with these words, “For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one. Now as we have many parts in one body, and all the parts do not have the same function, in the same way we who are many are one body in Christ and individually members of one another,” (Romans 12:3-5, CSB)
Paul encourages the Romans toward self-acceptance. He doesn’t want them to think too highly of themselves but to think sensibly or soberly about themselves. More importantly, Paul connects their view of themselves and how they are navigating the world to the Lord and what he is doing.
Gospel-centered self-acceptance involves knowing our strengths and weaknesses in the context of a larger community. It is impossible to know ourselves or to live with hope apart from others. Community reminds us that we need God’s love, as well as the support and encouragement of other people, to live with buoyancy. Developing community outside the home helps children understand that they will not always stand out in the crowd, and that’s okay. More importantly, they will realize that they need other people. Parenting toward the goal of self-acceptance means helping our children accept their strengths as gifts from God, the means by which they are a blessing to others. At the same time, weakness becomes simply a reminder that they need the Lord and other people to navigate the world well.
For example, one of my daughters was not driven in any way to stand out academically, athletically, or artistically. I can remember watching her play soccer as a fourth grader. It was about her sixth season of playing sports (soccer and basketball) and in all those years, the teams she was on had won only one or two games. After enduring losing season after losing season, she was finally in a game where her team was winning by a large margin. She finally had an opportunity to celebrate and puff her chest out a little bit.
Instead, I saw her letting up her efforts to play well because she felt compassion for the losing team. In that moment the strength of her heart and the gifts God had given her became clear. She taught her dad something. She wasn’t trying to stand out above others, she was trying to stand with others. Her desire to love and be loved was bigger than her need to feel accomplished. It is something I admire in her today.
During her years of elementary, middle, and high school, we had ongoing moments of prayer and conversation where I groaned with her through the condemnation she felt for not standing out. Through this process she was taking ownership of who she was. In many of those conversations, she would voice the pain she felt from the pull toward power and positioning that went on in her. My daughter and her friends felt the tug to stand out as a way to feel good about themselves. I had to keep reminding her that that kind students who don’t stand out athletically or academically are not celebrated in the kingdom of this world.
There are two keys to helping walk your child into self-acceptance. The first requires the ability to help them walk through disappointment and grow genuine humility. Even the accomplished student or athlete has weaknesses and faces disappointments. Teach your children that it is not helpful to hide from weaknesses or to take great pride in strengths. Instead, the humility that comes from accepting weaknesses helps soften taking pride in strengths, whereas enjoying strengths softens the blow of having weaknesses. When we are making room for both, then the space around us becomes more life giving.
Can you grieve and groan with your child through periods of failure or discouragement without an inordinate desire to make it all right? Can you trust that God will continue to guide your child and help them accept losses and disappointments as a necessary part of developing a trusting relationship with him? If your child cannot accept their failures and foibles, they will spend too much time pretending and straining to be an impossible version of themselves.
The second key to guiding your child toward self-acceptance involves helping them recognize how differences actually bring deeper togetherness. The danger in recognizing differences is that it can lead to pride (I am better than…) or condemnation (I am worse than…). It takes work to help your child accept that differences can help them stand more meaningfully with others, not above them or below them.
Suppose your child’s good friend gets the lead in the school play. That child recieves external validation and applause (literally) but your child may wrestle with jealousy and selfish ambition. However, the humor and extroversion that supports the friend’s acting ability is what your child appreciates and enjoys most about them. The extroverted friend brings life and fun to the relationship, while your child brings depth and stability. Help your child accept the differences in a way that affirms what is good in each them and makes up for what the other lacks. Their friendship is a good “team.” Growing this type of discernment leads to deeper love and facilitates self-acceptance.
Real self-acceptance will not happen without some ongoing involvement with your child where you help them move through internal battles. Whether you are guiding them toward accepting weaknesses that bring humility, or toward embracing a strength that could puff them up, you will have to help them work through internal battles. But by God’s grace, emotions like jealousy and selfish ambition can serve as an entryway into recognizing how Gospel truth pervades all of life. Genuine self-acceptance will not happen without pain-filled conversations where you patiently help your child see the depth and beauty of life with new eyes.