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In earlier times children began working with their parents when they were quite young. Their contribution was necessary, as every member had to work to take care of the family’s day to day needs. Also, it was a time for parents to impart skills to their children, like farming and handling livestock, grinding grain to flour, sewing, etc. Everything had to be done manually, so every pair of hands counted. Children saw their parents work hard and respected that. Often it was a three- or four- generation household. Watching their parents tend to grandparents and great-grandparents, children pitched in as well.  Helping their parents, though done as a matter of course, instilled a sense of belonging, of being needed, of having a clear role in the family. This gave them the self- esteem that is much talked about today as something to be consciously achieved.

The biggest difference between then and now is that childhood is prolonged, at least up to the age of eighteen. Children are financially dependent on their parents and live with them, but don’t contribute significantly, especially in affluent middle class families. They don’t need to, because there are maids to see to everything. The question of helping parents at work doesn’t arise unless there is a family-run business. In many homes, both parents go out to offices to work at their jobs. Children don’t see their parents work and don’t know what they actually do in their offices. Bonding is over meals, outings and vacations, which is why many little children believe money just comes out of ATMS.

So, bonding between parents and children in affluent middle class families does not happen over interdependence and shared work anymore. Children know they are valued because their parents show their love in many ways, but the self-esteem this brings is different than the one that comes from the satisfaction of being an important contributing member of the family. Even now, in lower income families, especially first generation city-dwellers, youngsters attend to housework, go to college, get jobs and proudly take care of the family’s needs thereafter. Confidence and a strong sense of self-worth are written on their faces.

Parents often give children responsibilities like making their own beds, watering plants, setting the table for dinner, etc. but clearly these jobs don’t convey “Mom needs me”; they only convey “Mom wants me to learn to be responsible” at best, and “Mom likes to control me” at worst. Consequently the only ‘work’ that is expected of a child from a middle class family is that he does well at school. This is fine if the child likes school work and is good at it. Or else, this can be a source of friction between parent and child, usually when he gets into his teens. School curricula are ‘one-size-fits-all’ and children who have a different type of intelligence (Howard Gardner first suggested that there are 7 types of intelligence) may not do well academically. Then what? The child is bound to feel awful about letting his parents down in the only area he is expected not to. He is ashamed, and angry with his parents for not being able to understand what he is going through. He can’t find a way to counter their baffled “but it can’t be so hard – other kids are doing fine”, and even more difficult to respond to the imploring “You have everything – your own room to study undisturbed, extra tuition, the car to take you to school and back so you don’t have to get tired travelling by bus . . . all we want you to do is study well and get good marks. . .”

It’s things like this that damage a child’s self esteem. When he reaches adolescence he simply gives up trying, and covers up with bravado or a blasé attitude. He projects an air of confidence, even arrogance, and acts ‘cool’. Parents often seek professional help at this point, when communication between child and parents has completely broken down.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Therapy can never be as good as having got it right in the first place.


4 thoughts on “Self-esteem

  1. Great way to look how things have changed, mostly in the past century. I agree that when parents work away from home, kids have no idea what their parents do and how hard they work. I work from home on the computer mostly and my kids get to see that. They see what I write, what I design, and I think it makes it more concrete for them. I also ask my kids to help with chores around the house, but I think I mostly present as help for me, so hopefully it will sink in.But yes, I think most kids see homework and school as the only work they have to really do.


    1. I’ve been doing exactly that, asking them to help me with little chores, and it has sunk in mainly because each child has designated jobs, and negotiations are not usually entertained 🙂 And I’ve always maintained that school is important, but other things need doing too.


  2. Very interesting insights. This has got me thinking… one of the major differences is that ‘childhood’ does last longer now. Healthy self esteem is the most precious gift we can give our children and if we look back to our own childhoods and determine the things that gave us our self esteem, surely we can apply similar practices to our own parenting techniques (in tune with these times and challenges of course). One thing that works in my small nuclear family is democratic communication and teamwork. …and yes, it helps us all! Thank you Dr. Vatsa, you really have got me thinking.


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