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:
Karl was never the athlete his three brothers were. But his parents encouraged the voracious reading habit that was evident from the time he could hold a book. While his brothers learned to be generous members of a team in sports, Karl developed those same skills in group science projects. “My parents wanted all of us to be happy,” Karl told the group, “but they also emphasized the importance of being contributors in whatever we did.”
Karl was doing his best to do the same in how he parented his very energetic (and, yes, athletic) son. “I may never understand someone who would rather run than read but I know how important it is to follow a kid’s talents and interests instead of force-fitting my own agenda. Even more to the point, I know how important it is to teach him to be a good team player.”
Karl’s family intuitively figured out what the research of positive psychologists such as Barbara Fredrickson and Martin Seligman are proving. Although channeling a child’s inclinations instead of criticizing them is fundamental to the development of positive self-esteem, there is more to it than that. For that self-esteem to be sustained, a child needs to learn how to make use of talents and strengths to earn those feelings of worth.
Life can be difficult. It can even be awful. Children who are taught to cope with stress can survive and thrive in spite of setbacks and failures, even in spite of traumatic experiences. Although resilience is partly a result of temperament and intelligence, there is strong evidence that it can be nurtured and taught.
Ann Masten, an important researcher in the resiliency field, confirms that a basic characteristic for resilience is a family that is looking out for the child. She also emphasizes the teachability of resilience. Children whose caregivers model good coping skills and encourage them to solve problems develop an identity that includes faith in their own resilience.
I know a number of young adults who are seriously challenged by significant health issues. One has multiple sclerosis (MS). Another has diabetes. The third has a seizure disorder. They have each succeeded in college, found a loving partner to love, and launched a successful career. On the face of it, that wouldn’t seem possible. But they grew up in families that always included them as “one of the gang,” that encouraged them to be all they can be, and that focused on their abilities not the disability. The result? Each of them sees the limitations imposed by their illness as problems to be solved, not reasons to withdraw from life.
Every child eventually answers the question “Who am I?” regardless of parental interest or attention. Whether that identity is positive or negative has a great deal to do with their observations of adult behavior and how they are treated by the important adults in their lives.
How we parent really does matter. A child is assured a healthier identity when parents provide a secure sense of belonging, encourage the positive use of strengths and teach the skills the child will need to be resilient when confronted with the inevitable challenges of life.