Martorella: Likes

In a recent Girl Scout meeting focusing on respect for self and others, my 7-year-old daughter was asked to list “5 Things I Like About Myself”. My daughter wrote:

  1. I am kind.
  2. I have a good memre.  (memory)
  3. I am smart.
  4. I am happy.
  5. I am funny.

The girls designed frames for their lists, which highlighted their special traits even more.  I was so touched by the whole piece and the healthy self-esteem that shone through. These days, there is so much information about how unhappy and stressed out our children are, how they judge themselves so harshly based on superficial factors. It was nice to see my daughter take pride in specific characteristics of her internal personality.  I can only hope that this can be sustained throughout childhood, and have made a vow to hang up this list prominently and revisit it at least annually — possibly monthly once she reaches the middle school years.

In a completely separate assignment, my daughter was asked to compare herself to a character in a book, using inside and outside traits. Again, her list of inside traits was more than double the list of outside traits. Even better was that words like “determined,” “strong,” and “adventurous” joined the “smart,” “kind” and “funny” descriptors, nothing limited by gender stereotypes.

Everyone to whom I have mentioned the “Five things” list has said that they should do a list for themselves. After all, couldn’t everybody benefit from thinking about the positives instead of the problems, what we have instead of what haven’t done. A simple exercise to reinforce the importance of character over appearance, interests over awards, and experiences over possessions, is an essential reminder not only for our children but for ourselves.

My 91-year old father was the first to actually do one. He said 1) I am OLD and HEALTHY! (caps and exclamation point his) 2) I am content at having lived a complete life. 3) I am honest. 4) I am competent. 5) I am available.  (That last one reminded me that it was time to give him a call, then leading me to think maybe his fifth trait should have been “I am very clever.”)

The foundation of self-esteem is your ability to internally generate positive feelings about your accomplishments. It isn’t something other people can give you just by telling you you’re great.

Self-esteem comes from managing through struggles yourself, staying determined, falling and getting back up. It can be built up by life experience, but it can also be beaten down.

Many children may accomplish a lot but still have low self-esteem. They have been told they are great, but they do not feel great. You may see that in a child who berates himself for every mistake despite compliments from his teachers and parents, or the athlete who can’t forget an error despite being lauded for her numerous saves and assists.

We may think we are building self-esteem in our children by celebrating their every accomplishment, praising them no matter what they do. But sometimes this unconditional praise can backfire. Children may start to depend on the constant praise to feel like whatever they are doing is worthwhile. They may panic or avoid doing something if they think they may not be able to do it perfectly and live up to their “Fantastic!” “Awesome!!”, “Perfect!” reputations. A child may begin to over-identify with the praise. For example, a child who is often told, “You are so smart!” may avoid facing more challenging tasks where he may not look as smart. A child praised for appearance or tidiness may be afraid to “get messy”.

We need to remember to praise our children and everyone we care about for who they are more than what they do. Praise effort more than results, and be specific. Statements like “I really liked how you kept your focus during the game,” “It was so helpful when you responded nicely to your brother today,” or “Thanks for sharing with your friend even though they were both your toys,” teach our children that their choices can lead to positive consequences. They develop a sense of accountability, responsibility and pride in who they are.  Isn’t that something we all could use?

Take the next few moments to write down five things that you like about yourself. You may find the answers surprising.

Rebecca Martorella, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist, author, and mother of two. Contact her at and follow her on Twitter at @RealMomTherapy.


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