Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Don't You Love Me, Mommy: Instilling Self Esteem in Young Children After New Siblings Arrive

Welcome to the October 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Instilling a Healthy Self-Image
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared confessions, wisdom, and goals for helping children love who they are. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

            Things went beautifully for Jenevieve and me when she was my only little girl. She was always with me. I carried her around in a handmade baby sling, snuggled her whenever I could, and let her watch as I made bread from scratch. Though only five years old, she knew a great deal about cooking and cleaning just from watching and asking questions.
            Then I got pregnant. Pregnancy delighted Jenevieve at first. She rubbed my tummy and made plans for her new baby brother and sister. Dej and I even let her help pick out the baby’s name. She liked Saja (pronounced like Sasha) and Kja (pronounced KI). And as the due date neared, I made some baby slings with her and gave her the baby sling I carried her in. I slipped her baby doll in the sling and fastened it over her shoulders. “See, now you look like Mommy,” I said.
            Jenevieve grinned and pranced around the room. Everything seemed to be going well. Dej and I even started transitioning her from our bed at night to her own little wood bed in the next room. She seemed to love it, and if she had a nightmare, she just came to wake us up but wanted to return to her “big girl bed.” I thought it was going to be easy.

The Birth
            Then little Saja was born. And amidst all the beautiful memories and pictures, Jenevieve grinned until she saw me holding Saja in the baby sling. When I looked up from my bed, I saw her just staring, her eyes somber and her smile gone. In that moment, I knew that my darling little girl thought she had been replaced.
            Everything went downhill after that. Suddenly Jenevieve wanted to sleep in our double bed again. Nightmares kept her from resting each night, and she brought me her old sling and asked me to carry her. She even suggested that we return Saja because she was so small she obviously wasn’t done. Dej and I gently talked to her. We taught her to hold Saja and we told her how much we loved her, but that was not enough.
            Everyone, of course, seemed to have an opinion on the matter. “It’s normal.” “Just let her cry it out.” “Don’t coddle her.” The suggestions ranged from buying her an exotic kitten to sending her to bed without dinner. None of these recommendations seemed to actually address the heart of Jenevieve’s pain.
 But one dear friend, Dana, actually hit the issue dead on. She came by the house with a delicious zucchini and cheddar casserole, complete with sweet potato rolls and loving motherly advice. “This is the perfect time for you to teach Jenevieve about how she sees herself. All this time she’s been the center of your attention, and she’s attached her worth to that. Now she has to share that love and attention with Saja.” 

The Eureka Moment
            Dana’s words sunk in almost at once. For all of her growing up, I had called Jenevieve “Momma’s little baby.” I had held her, sung to her, reaffirmed her, and loved her, but I had always drawn the focus back to the fact that she was my beloved daughter. Now I was also singing the same lullabies to Saja, carrying her in a baby sling of Jenevieve, and calling her “Momma’s little baby.” It didn’t matter that I told Jenevieve that she was “still Momma’s little girl.” It just wasn’t the same.
            Guilt wracked me. As the child of a child psychologist and a psychology major myself, I should have understood the implications. It is not enough to make a child feel special or appreciated. It has to go deeper into that. I had to find ways to help Jenevieve see herself as an individual. A young woman in the making, unique from every other girl. Her identity could not be wrapped up in being Momma’s baby. 

The Conversation
            Dej was much calmer about the realization than I. He always is. Together we came up with a plan to not only remind Jenevieve how much we loved her but to show her the wonderful little girl she was and that she was entering into an exciting new phase.
            When Jenevieve got up from her nap, Dej took Saja for a walk, and I picked her up. “What makes you special, sweetheart?”
            She couldn’t think of anything. She just fiddled with the wooden buttons on her cornflower blue cardigan.
            “Why do you think Mommy loves you?”
            Still no answer.
            I waited then, and when she still refused to answer me, I began to tell her all the wonderful things I had seen. I reminded her how gentle she was when she held baby Saja. I told her how hard she had worked to learn her letters and how she always did so well at trying again if she forgot which letter came next. Jenevieve smiled a little with each reminder, even looking up at me when I told her how I noticed the way she always separated the spoons from the forks when she helped me clear the table.
            I was choking up by the time Dej came back. But I kissed Jenevieve on the head and whispered, “You will always be my little girl, but that’s not the only reason you’re special. Nothing is ever going to change how much your daddy and I love you.” 

A Long Slow Process of Teaching and Rewarding Decision Making
            The next part of the process came in  reaffirming how proud we were of Jenevieve and how much we loved her. And more than that, we decided to let her make more decisions for herself. When she made a decision, we both praised her for the attributes she showed, not for the fact that she made them. The decisions started out small. Letting her pick out which baby sling I carried Saja in, what Jenevieve wore for the day, which vegetables we put in the salad, and the like.
            At night when she tried to come join us in bed, we gently refused. Instead, we started teaching her how to keep the nightmares away. I would get up and bring her a glass of water while Dej showed her that there was nothing under the bed.
My mother came up with the great idea of creating a sister blanket for Jenevieve to show Jenevieve the new and exciting relationship developing. Jenevieve picked out pictures of herself as a baby, Saja as a baby, and Saja and Jenevieve together. We then put them together in a photo collage, and I even had Jenevieve make some pictures. She painted them with watercolors, and I scanned them into the computer. The company my mother recommended, Vision Bedding, allowed us to organize the pictures and the painted sketches into a duvet cover for Jenevieve’s twin bed.
            When the package arrived, I told Jenevieve that it was to say thank you for her being such a good big sister. “You’re a role model for Saja, you know,” I said. “You show her how to be a good girl.” 

            My conversation with Dana made me realize how early I should have started teaching Jenevieve about who she was. While in her young mind, it likely seemed that she was just a little girl whose identity was a daughter, Jenevieve was far more than that.
            Experts tells us that cultivating positive self esteem and identity start when children are young and should focus on the child’s attributes rather than on physical beauty or role. Jenevieve turned out to be a very resilient child, fortunately. She knew that we loved her, and she soon learned that we were not replacing her.


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be updated by afternoon October 9 with all the carnival links.)

  • Why I Walk Around Naked — Meegs at A New Day talks about how she embraces her own body so that her daughter might embrace hers.
  • What I Am Is Not Who I Am — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama discusses her views on the importance of modeling WHO she is for her daughter and not WHAT she sees in the mirror.
  • Carnival of Natural Parenting: Verbs vs. Adjectives — Alisha at Cinnamon & Sassafras tries hard to compliment what her son does, not who he is.
  • The Naked Family — Sam at Love Parenting talks about how nudity and bodily functions are approached in her home.
  • How She'll See Herself — Rosemary at Rosmarinus Officinalis discusses some of the challenges of raising a daughter in our culture and how she's hoping to overcome them.
  • Self Esteem and all it's pretty analogies — Musings from Laura at Pug in the Kitchen on what she learned about self-esteem in her own life and how it applies to her parenting.
  • Beautiful — Tree at Mom Grooves writes about giving her daughter the wisdom to appreciate her body and how trying to be a role model taught Tree how to appreciate her own.
  • Do As I Say, Not As I Do: Nurturing A Healthy Body Image — Christy at Eco Journey in the Burbs is changing perceptions about her body so that she may model living life with a positive, healthy body image for her three young daughters.
  • Some{BODY} to LoveKate Wicker has faced her own inner demons when it comes to a poor body image and even a clinical eating disorder, and now she wants to help her daughters to be strong in a world that constantly puts girls at risk for losing their true selves. This is Kate's love letter to her daughters reminding them to not only accept their bodies but to accept themselves as well in every changing season of life.
  • They Make Creams For That, You Know — Destany at They Are All of Me writes about celebrating her natural beauty traits, especially the ones she passed onto her children.
  • New Shoes for Mama — Kellie of Our Mindful Life, guest posting at Natural Parents Network, is getting some new shoes, even though she is all grown up…
  • Raising boys with bodily integrity — Lauren at Hobo Mama wants her boys to understand their own bodily autonomy — so they'll respect their own and others'.
  • Sowing seeds of self-love in our children — After struggling to love herself despite growing up in a loving family, Shonnie at Heart-Led Parenting has suggestions for parents who truly want to nurture their children's self-esteem.
  • Subtle Ways to Build a Healthy Self-Image — Emily at S.A.H.M i AM discusses the little things she and her husband do every day to help their daughter cultivate a healthy self-image.
  • On Barbie and Baby Bikinis: The Sexualization of Young Girls — Justine at The Lone Home Ranger finds it difficult to keep out the influx of messages aimed at her young daughters that being sexy is important.
  • Undistorted — Focusing on the beauty and goodness that her children hold, Mandy at Living Peacefully with Children watches them grow, loved and undistorted.
  • Off The Hook — Arpita at Up, Down and Natural sheds light on the journey of infertility, and how the inability to get pregnant and stay pregnant takes a toll on self image…only if you let it. And that sometimes, it feels fantastic to just let yourself off the hook.
  • Going Beyond Being An Example — Becky at Old New Legacy discusses three suggestions on instilling healthy body image: positivity, family dinners, and productivity.
  • Raising a Confident Kid — aNonymous at Radical Ramblings describes the ways she's trying to raise a confident daughter and to instil a healthy attitude to appearance and self-image.
  • Instilling a Healthy Self Image — Laura at This Mama's Madness hopes to promote a healthy self-image in her kids by treating herself and others with respect, honesty, and grace.
  • Stories of our Uniqueness — Casey at Sesame Seed Designs looks for a connection to the past and celebrates the stories our bodies can tell about the present.
  • Helping My Boy Build a Healthy Body Image — Lyndsay at ourfeminist{play}school offers readers a collection of tips and activities that she uses in her journey to helping her 3-year-old son shape a healthy body image.
  • Eat with Joy and Thankfulness: A Letter to my Daughters about Food — Megan at The Boho Mama writes a letter to her daughters about body image and healthy attitudes towards food.
  • Helping Our Children Have Healthy Body Images — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now shares information about body image, and her now-adult daughter tells how she kept a healthy body image through years of ballet and competitive figure skating.
  • Namaste — Kat at Loving {Almost} Every Moment shares how at barely 6 years old, her daughter has begun to say, "I'm not beautiful." And while it's hard to listen to, she also sees it as a sign her daughter is building her self-image in a grassroots kind of way.
  • 3 Activities to Help Instill a Healthy Self-Image in Your Child — Explore the changing ideals of beauty, create positive affirmations, and design a self-image awareness collage. Dionna at Code Name: Mama shares these 3 ideas + a pretty affirmation graphic you can print and slip in your child's lunchbox.
  • Beautiful, Inside and Out — It took a case of adult-onset acne for Kat of MomeeeZen to find out her parenting efforts have resulted in a daughter that is truly beautiful, inside and out.
  • Mirroring Positive Self Image for Toddlers — Shannon at GrowingSlower reflects on encouraging positive self image in even the youngest members of the family.
  • How I hope to instill a healthy body image in my two girls — Raising daughters with healthy body image in today's society is no small task, but Xela at The Happy Hippie Homemaker shares how choosing our words carefully and being an example can help our children learn to love their bodies.
  • Self Image has to Come from WithinMomma Jorje shares all of the little things she does to encourage healthy attitudes in her children, but realizes she can't give them their self images.
  • Protecting the Gift — JW from True Confessions of a Real Mommy wants you to stop thinking you need to boost your child up: they think they are wonderful all on their own.
  • Learning to Love Myself, for my Daughter — Michelle at Ramblings of Mitzy addresses her own poor self-image.
  • Nurturing An Innate Sense of Self — Marisa at Deliberate Parenting shares her efforts to preserve the confidence and healthy sense of self they were born with.
  • Don't You Love Me, Mommy?: Instilling Self-Esteem in Young Children After New Siblings Arrive — Jade at Seeing Through Jade Glass But Dimly hopes that her daughter will learn to value herself as an individual rather than just Momma's baby
  • Exercising is FUN — Amy W. at Me, Mothering, and Making it All Work talks about modeling for her children that exercising is FUN and good for body and soul.
  • Poor Little Chicken — Kenna at A Million Tiny Things gets her feathers ruffled over her daughter's clothing anxiety.
  • Loving the skin she's in — Mama Pie at Downside Up and Outside In struggles with her little berry's choice not to celebrate herself and her heritage.
  • Perfect the Way I Am — Erika at Cinco de Mommy struggles — along with her seven-year-old daughter — at telling herself she's perfect just the way she is.


  1. It sounds like you handled this very well!

  2. Wow this is a fabulous post. On a whim I asked Little Berry "what makes you special?" while reading this and she said, I kid you not, "you giving me attention." O_O I had no idea she saw her self worth as defined by my attention. I am going to work very hard on instilling positive messages in her about who she is and not *who's* she is.

  3. I absolutely love this post. The way you handled her regression is amazing. What a blessing it is that you have such an insightful friend! Thank you for sharing.

  4. Isn't it shocking to think about how much children look to us for self-image and worth?!
    Mamma Pie - I think it may partially be the age. I just asked Kieran, and he said "because you love me." Then we talked about what makes us special, and he wasn't really getting it ;) He said "I'm special because I have a new game." heh

  5. Thank you so much, Meegs!

    Mamma Pie, wow, thank you for sharing that! I'm glad to know that it isn't just my little ones.

    Michelle, thank you for your kind words. Yes, I am so blessed by my friends. I don't know what I would do about them.

    Dionna, yes, you are so right! I thought it was harmless at first, and it was quite the surprise to realize the impact it was having.

    My apologies to everyone for the delay. The internet went out for a whole day. Apparently something happened statewide to our internet server, and, living in a very small town, everyone uses the same provider, lol.

  6. This is so meaningful! I would never have thought how much our kids' identity is wrapped up in how they relate to us, but it makes so much sense. I'm going to begin some conversations with our own "big brother" today about what makes him so special. Thanks!