Here’s another insight into the minds of children from Patricia Berne’s great book, Building Self-esteem In Children.

Berne believes that “Nothing is as effective in building children’s self-esteem as success…Self-esteem cannot grow healthily without some success to nourish it.”

She says, “A sense of success grows slowly in children, since they are prone to feeling inadequate around adults.” So in her work with kids, she tried to create situations where the child could experience some genuine success. Tommy’s story is a good example.

Tommy was a nine-year-old nonreader; his teacher said he was a daydreamer who didn’t seem interested in anything but drawing pictures. Berne was asked to tutor him.

In their first session, Berne asked Tommy what he liked to do. He said he liked to draw pictures, so she asked him to draw something for her. Then she tells what happened:

“As Tommy began to draw, I asked him to describe to me what he was drawing and why. A story emerged. A squirrel-like creature decked in Levis, a cowboy hat, and guns was coming through the swinging doors of an old-fashioned western saloon. As he penciled in more details, he elaborated the adventure more and more.”

As Tommy talked, Berne wrote down his words exactly as he spoke them. She told Tommy that this was a very interesting story and that she would type up his words before their next session.

At each session, Tommy continued to draw, and Berne continued to write down his words and type them up. She used these stories as his first reading materials to help him learn to read. Because they were his own words, it was easier for him to read and he was automatically interested and motivated. The potential for Tommy’s reading success went up exponentially. Now he could build on the experience of being successful.

Beyond the obvious, here’s what struck me about that story: every child has such a basic need to experience delight and value and success in just being who he or she is and doing what he or she can do. That’s why little kids say, “Watch me, Daddy!”

We know the saying, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” For kids we might say, “Encourage things they love to do and self-esteem and motivation will follow.” And the book shows that this can be built up even in small, everyday things.

Of course there will be hard things to learn. Unpleasant tasks to do. Failure to handle. A certain discipline to be acquired. But kids will usually handle these better if they have a foundation of what we might call Self-Affirming Success.