Fostering a Sense of Self in a “Skin-Deep” Culture

– by Paul Robertson
1999, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

On March 20, 1967, a 17-year-old girl named Lesley Hornby from London, England, stepped off a plane in Chicago and forever changed the nature of adolescent culture in North America. A year earlier she had turned the English fashion world upside down. That week an anonymous writer for Newsweek penned these prophetic words—”Whether the Twiggy look will now sweep across the U.S., emaciating teenagers as it goes, remains to be seen.” It didn’t take long for teens to emulate the Twiggy look. I recently met two moms, who at the age of 15 in 1967, both lost over 30 pounds and developed eating disorders because they wanted to be like Twiggy.

I believe this was a watershed moment leading to our current culture’s confusion over the true source of a person’s value and worth. Our kids have bought the false notion that what’s really important lies on the surface rather than on the inside. An article in the March issue of Pediatrics indicated that more than two-thirds of the girls in grades five through 12 said magazine photos influenced their notion of the ultimate figure. Consequently, the incidence of eating disorders and perpetual dieting are on the rise.

How does one decide what to look like when bombarded by “beautiful people” in a steady stream of unrealistic media messages? How will kids ever gain a positive sense of self if they never “arrive” and slick marketers are always peddling one more product to make their incomplete and unfulfilled life complete?

It isn’t just a girl problem anymore. There has been a significant increase in the number of boys pumping iron and popping pills in order to attain that “perfect” image. A burgeoning cult of appearance and worship of perfection is taking many young men down paths far from traditional weight lifting. It’s all about attaining the “look.” Many of the articles in men’s magazines feature muscular young men and headlines such as “Rock Hard Abs” and “Your New Body is Here!” Little to do with physical fitness and much to do with being attractive enough to be accepted by the opposite sex.

Given how our children are deluged by images from TV, movies and magazines, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to feel secure in who they are as God has created them. Creating a healthy sense of self in children is one of the most important tasks a parent can perform. Our goal is to make them satisfied with themselves in a culture that fosters perpetual discontent based solely on the image looking back at them from the mirror. How do we do it?

Seven steps to a healthy sense of self

Of course, we must address and shatter the shallow and destructive “beauty” lies force-fed to kids by advertising and media. And, we must tell them what God has to say about issues of value and worth. But let me suggest seven additional yet often overlooked practical steps we can take to help create a healthy sense of self in our children.

First, commend your children when they do something well. If you’re like me, you have a built-in ability to catch your kids doing things wrong. But what about the times when they do something right? We need to acknowledge progress of all types and encourage our kids when they make an effort to do their best. Even minimal progress is worth commending and rewarding.

Second, praise your kids in front of others. Our kids need to know we are proud of them. I am not talking about bragging but genuinely affirming them to others when we know they are listening. When asked what makes them happy in their lives, the great majority of teens say, “When my parents say they are proud of me.” It thrills a child’s heart when they know we appreciate them and their efforts

Third, praise your children in advance. One way we can let our kids know we believe in them is to extol them before an event or activity. Letting them know we think they will have a great game because they have practiced hard can instill confidence in our children. The same is true for a young one heading out the door to take that dreaded math test. We should make the future goal of doing their best more real than any current inadequacies they might be feeling.

Fourth, affirm them without using words. One of my boys used to run and meet me at the door every night when I came home from work. He was like the Flintstone’s dog Dino. He would throw his arms around me and usually I just patted him on the head. It was over in seconds and he would return to whatever he was doing before I arrived. Affirmation can come from notes of encouragement tucked in lunch bags, pats on the shoulder, hugs and wrestling on the floor. We need to take advantage of the days when our kids will let us get this close. Dads especially need to remember to always embrace their daughters.

Fifth, honor young people with words of affection. Recently I surveyed a church youth group with a questionnaire about their hopes and desires. None of the answers surprised except those to this question: “Do you wish your parents would say ‘I love you’ more often?” Nearly 95 percent of the kids answered in the affirmative. Our children are never too old to hear how much we love them. Sure, they don’t want us doing it in front of their friends, but our words of affection give them a deep sense of legitimate love.

Sixth, love your kids for who they are. I will never forget my mother comparing me to my best friend when I was 11 years old. It hurt. I don’t believe it is healthy to compare our kids to their friends or their siblings. In doing so we communicate to them that we wish they were somebody else. Another mistake is trying to live our lives through our kids. They need us to affirm who they are as we recognize their God-given individuality.

Seventh, remember what your kids can become in the future. I am a big believer in the idea that the future determines the present. Where we see ourselves in the future determines how we act today. If a son or daughter sees himself or herself making a certain sports team in the future, they will be committed to practice and discipline. As parents, we must give our kids a vision of what they might become in the future. I love the story of the mom walking down the street with a young child on each hand. Someone stopped and asked her how old her children were. She replied, “The lawyer is six and the doctor is eight.” As Christians, we should live with a sense of expectancy that we pass on to our kids. My four sons all have lofty goals and dreams for their lives. As parents, we have worked to nurture those dreams and prayed they will become everything God wants them to be.

Our culture has left too many kids battered and confused. It’s our parental privilege and responsibility to help them see that their value and worth don’t hinge on the shape in the mirror or the numbers on the scale. Rather, their value and worth come from the Heavenly Father who made and loves them. Do your kids know they’re valued and loved by their earthly parents?


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For more information on resources to help you understand today=s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.