Building self-esteem — trying to avoid boasting

By Jane Flanagan

I keep thinking about an anecdote a friend related.

“There was a 5-year-old boy living upstairs from me,” she said. “I thought he was a nice fellow, but a bit of a braggart. Then I met some other 5-year-olds.”

I know just what she’s talking about. Rusty, my newly-minted fiver, is always talking about himself.

“I have very big muscles. I’m much stronger than my Mom,” he said recently.

This past August, eating dinner outdoors on a deck in New Jersey, Rusty volunteered to help clear the table.

“I brought in the salad dressing,” he said.

This boasting is giving me pause. But not because he has better muscles than me. It’s the ego-building going on.

Back when I was contemplating parenthood, I fancied myself enlightened. I engaged in theoretical conversations with indulgent friends on how I’d bolster my child’s self esteem.

But, I had no idea.

“I can hang from the monkey bars with one hand,” Rusty said at the park this weekend. As he proceeded to do it, I praised him profusely.

But it’s not always that easy.

“I tied my shoes,” he said the other day.

I stumbled on a response because I knew he couldn’t have. He doesn’t know how. But he’s trying to learn and I didn’t want to be discouraging. So I copped out with a question.

“You did?” I said.

Sometimes, I realize, too late, it’s better not to say anything.

The other night I was out pitching Wiffle balls to Rusty. Despite his contention that he doesn’t need to play T-ball anymore (where the ball sits on top of a plastic pole and he just whacks it), he kept missing the ball. After about the tenth missed pitch, I said, “Don’t worry Rust, it’s hard to hit.”

He looked surprised. Then I realized. He wasn’t complaining. I don’t think he even thought of it as missing the ball. He seemed to enjoy just swinging the bat, over and over, trying to hit it.

But it’s when I get mad at him that I really see how easy it is to blow it.

The other morning at breakfast, Rusty was being difficult. He said he wanted cereal, changed his mind to yogurt, then settled on a hard boiled egg. I like to think I no longer indulge this behavior, but he was just getting over being sick and I was short on time. I just wanted him to eat something.

But after I cracked and peeled, he said, “I don’t want an egg.”

So I got mad. “Rusty, I’m not making you three breakfasts and having you not eat….”

It seems, however, that he was just exercising another new age-5-development, his sense of humor. “I was just tricking you, Mom.”

Still, my anger lingered. I thought I was covering well, but apparently, I wasn’t.

“Are you mad at me, Mom?” he said.

“Well, yeah, I am,” I said.

Contemplating this, he took another bite of his egg and looked down at his plate. “Do you still love me?” he said. “Do you still love me, even if you’re mad at me?”

If there is one thing I want him to know it’s that I do. I swallowed my anger, and went over and gave him a hug and kiss. “I always love you. Even when I’m mad at you. No matter what, I always love you.”

He took another bite, and held out his other hand.

“See how long my nails are?”

Yes, bit by bit he’s building his sense of self-esteem. Sometimes, however, in surprising ways.

One evening, looking for a toy in his bedroom, he stumbled on a gymnastics medal he received when he was 3. He’d long forgotten why he got it, so he invented a reason.

“The teacher said you can’t pick your nose. I won the medal because I didn’t. It was hard work, but I did it.”