By Paul C. Holinger, M.D., M.P.H.
When a baby finds that her signals are validated and responded to appropriately, that troubles are soothed and pleasure enhanced, she begins to sense that her feelings, expressions, of her very being, are of value and important. A baby learns that she counts for something. This is the foundation of the development of self-esteem -- a combination of who you are, how you feel about yourself, and what you think about your future potential.
Self-esteem takes root or withers depending on how you handle your child's signals of fun -- interest and enjoyment -- and validating and attending to the signals for help -- distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dismal.
As parents you are the most important people in your baby's world. You provide your child with his first definitions of himself. You tell him through your every word, gesture, and action just how important he is and how he is perceived by the outside world.
Over the coming months and years, as your child matures and becomes an adult, his self-esteem will become a more complex web of interlocking emotions and thoughts about himself and about how he sees and is seen by others. It's common for growing children and as well as adults to fluctuate between episodes of high and low self-esteem over the course of months or years. However, a solid foundation of self-esteem -- built by appropriate responses to a child's signals and nurtured throughout childhood -- will help most people maintain a basically optimistic view of their lives and their future over the course of life.s ups and downs. Your goal now, with your baby, is to help him develop a sense of himself that is reasonably solid and stable. As he grows, that will allow him to perceive his talents and abilities accurately, respond to life with flexibility, and look at his goals and capacities realistically.
Of course, the real key is loving the very essence of your child -- loving and valuing the child for himself or herself, who he or she is. But this is often easier said than done --especially if the parents have not been loved and valued. Yet, understanding the nine signals can be useful here too: Much of the child's essence is wrapped up in her interests and enjoyments; and understanding and attending to the negative signals can help prevent the cycles of frustration, hurt, and anger which can so contaminate the parent-child relationship and erode the child's internal world.
From the first days of your baby's life, you can lay the foundation for self-esteem by responding appropriately to your child's signals for help (distress, anger, etc.) and fun (interest and enjoyment).
Many experts believe that another important building block of self-esteem involves a child's experience of competence. Competence is initially achieved as a result of the brain's capacity to create order out of the disorder of all the incoming stimuli. An infant's inherent ability to develop competence lays the foundation for later, more sophisticated mastery of interaction with the world and people, which in turn may produce a sense of self-esteem. One part of this development, as a child grows, is learning that he is able to exert control over external events. Another, as he interacts with his environment, is learning how to adapt in a healthy way to the external world's social requirements and expectations.
Focusing Appropriate Attention on the Child
Babies thrive when they feel they are of genuine interest to you and are the center of your universe. They use their nine signals to express their entire range of emotions. When a baby cries, or fusses, or coos, she expects you to react with as much enthusiasm or distress as she does about what is happening to her.