Identity. It’s a complicated concept that defies easy definition. Yet it is at the heart of the lifelong question, “Who am I?” How we answer includes how much we value ourselves and how safe and competent we feel in the social world. Although it can and does change in response to life experience, the foundation is laid down in childhood.
Parents can and do have enormous influence. Yes, identity development will happen whether parents actively do something or not. All children absorb the attitudes, attributes and values of the people around them. Parents can, however, provide the care and environment to foster the healthy identity that includes security, a positive self-esteem and resilience. Several factors foster a positive identity:
According to early 20th-century theorist Alfred Adler, knowing that we belong in the human community is fundamental to mental health. Attachment theorists such as John Bowlby and researchers in positive psychology such as Martin Seligman argue that positive attachment to caregivers influences children’s belief in their own loveability and the capacity to form trusting relationships throughout life.
Children who grow up in a family that is embedded in a larger community and that is proud of its heritage internalize an additional sense of security and pride. Positive messages about their culture, history and values provide what Adler called a “guiding line,” a set of principles to guide decisions and values throughout life.
Else is an international consultant. I once asked her how she had become the competent, self-assured person I know her to be. She was quick to recognize the encouragement and support she’d always had from her parents to follow her dreams. But she also credited her mother for providing her with a strong connection to both her family and to a larger community.
When her mother stretched the family budget by regularly serving potato dishes for dinner, for example, she didn’t lament that they were poor. Instead, she explained that they ate potatoes a lot because the recipes had come down from their Austrian great-grandparents. Reframing what could have been a negative to instead be a valued reflection of family heritage gave her children a cause for pride, not deprivation. The sense of belonging to a larger, international family with its own foods, traditions, even music is, I’m sure, part of the reason Else is so comfortable working with different cultures.
For many years, popular psychology emphasized the need for children to feel good about themselves in order to succeed in life. Current researchers argue that feeling good is only half of the formula. It’s not enough to identify children’s strengths. They need to be encouraged to use those strengths in positive ways,
Karl was in one of my parenting groups a few years ago. One evening, when we were talking about what parents can do to build their children’s self-esteem, he shared this story: