Dear Pearls,

My 9-year-old son has low self-esteem. He expects too much of himself. He feels rejected. We have never talked down to him, although there have been others who have expressed that they did not want him around.

He does not have any close friends, although I had tried to have him included as often as possible. I want so much to help him, but feel quite helpless.

— Pam

Michael Answers

Dear Pam,

Every child has expectations for himself. Part of it is innate—a reflection of the image of God—and part of it is a by-product of his society and culture. Our conscience is never far from the conviction that God holds us accountable for the way we invest our life. We feel the responsibility to multiply the “talents” God has given us—our time, gifts, energy, money, etc. A child or adult can have low self-esteem because of the gap between what he knows he should and could be, and his lazy unwillingness to pay the price to achieve the realistic goals he has set for himself. In which case, the poor self-image would be justified. The only answer would be to do what one knows he ought, and thus remove the self-accusation. Performance of unpleasant duty is the measure of a man. Empty praise and “positive affirmation” will not help a person feel better about himself when his conscience is justly condemning him.

Then there is that low self-esteem that is a product of culture and society. Society, including religion, can communicate and inculcate false and unrealistic goals that are impossible to meet. A child who is a little slower in developing than other children and always feels inferior, or a child whose parents are driving him to perform above his peers, or a child who is talked down to by his parents or those whom he respects, or any number of ways whereby society overly burdens a child with perfectionist goals will cause low self-esteem. Corporate classrooms are incubators for low self-esteem. You can count on it; the lower performers in any classroom setting will have a poor self-image.

Obviously, a child is most impressed by those whom he is around the most and by those whose opinion he values. Therefore, ninety percent of a child’s self-esteem is a product of the family environment. Only a small part is a result of the child’s outside associations. The people who expressed that they “did not want your child around” are not responsible for his poor self-image; they just manifest it in a social setting. If a child is being rejected by his peers, ridiculed by his siblings, or even by the other parent, the thing that will make it worse is for the sympathetic parent to run interference, trying to protect the child by making others show him the respect he deserves. He will see your desperation and anger, but he will not interpret it as an affirmation of his worth. Your acknowledgement of the situation only affirms his sense of self-worthlessness. You will speed up the downward spiral by inflated praise of the child and by condemnation of others.

What then is the cure? How do you improve the self-image of your nine-year-old son? Make a man out of him. Rather than whine or try to make people respect him, lead him to become competent and accomplished in some area that he and others value. Provide the tools and encouragement for him to succeed in those areas that are important to him. Some kids are lazy and will just waste away in self-pity before they will stir themselves to pay the price of excellence, so you must constrain them to get out of their comfort and pity zones to reach for more.

Kids don’t laugh at tough kids. They ridicule skinny weaklings. No teenager ever felt left out because he was strong and tough. You may have to make exercise fun by participating. Get rid of the video games and TV. They never make a kid likeable.

Interact with a child through conversation and discussion to make him intellectually competent and socially adept. Arrange for him to participate in a limited social circle in which he is comfortable. Don’t throw him into the ring with competitors that will crush him—until he is strong enough to fight back.

Now, you did not tell me in your letter in what way your son has low self-esteem. You need a clear and accurate picture of him. As a mother you are biased, blind, and empathetic. I suggest you do to things: First, ask your husband what is wrong with your son that he is not liked by other kids. Then listen; don’t argue; don’t blame; just believe him. Second, ask the other kids, or the parents of other kids (in a non-accusing way) what is wrong with your child. You must face the fact that your son is not likeable. Children don’t just decide to gang up on one little guy and make him miserable. He is different. How? Why? They don’t need to change. Your son needs to change. You are perplexed, so you need information. The people who reject him have the answer. They will be reluctant to tell you. They may lie to you to save your feelings, but they know the source of the problem. Do you have the humility and guts to learn the answer and make changes in yourself and your family? Children like themselves when they are likeable.

Make your son likeable.

– Michael Pearl