I can remember when, as a young child, I had small square wooden building blocks with painted letters and numbers on all the sides. They were about an inch and a half square. I could use them to learn to count or learn the ABC’s or make words. I could also stack them up and make  buildings or forts. Their use was as unlimited as my imagination.

My grandmother, my mom’s mom, was one of those rare women of that time who had been to college and had become a teacher. She understood the value of education and was determined to pass it on. My grandmother used those blocks and any other means at her disposal to work with me and my siblings to ensure we could read by the time we entered kindergarten. We learned phonics and how to sound out words and throughout my elementary and high school years reading was a constant companion. My siblings and I practiced penmanship in printing and cursive letters, worked with addition, subtraction, and times tables and knew that learning was fun. It was cool because my mother and grandmother made it cool. The emphasis was on achievement and learning and we always received encouragement and support as we progressed academically.

I heard about college from my mother over and over and over again as I grew into an older child and then an adolescent. It was never a question of “if” I was going to go to college, it was more a matter of when. And I as I sit here now and write this I can remember not having any idea what “college” really meant. I mean for most of my childhood and adolescence we were raised in a small rural Montana town that makes Carson City look like New York City.

My educational pathway however, did not turn out to be the straight road that either my mother or grandmother had hoped for. I took a few detours along the way including the U.S. Navy, marriage, children and divorce. But, the seeds of the value of an education had been planted, carefully tended and nurtured for years by my mother and grandmother and I have returned to the educational path three separate times over the course of my life.

The building blocks for a successful life for each of us are universal. The story above is true and while for me it focuses on education as a key for my life, it is the underpinnings, the real building blocks which I received from my mother, grandmother, father and grandfather which moved me forward after each time I detoured.  Those underpinnings or building blocks start with self-esteem and include self-worth, self-confidence, self-efficacy (the belief I can meet the challenges facing me successfully) and initiative.

Self-esteem is built by the hundreds, if not thousands, of small achievements and successes fostered by parents over the course of a child’s life. Learning the ABC’s, how to count to 100, or finally memorizing the times tables are huge achievements in a child’s life. Promotion or graduation from one grade to another is a marvelous reason for celebration. But one harsh word which discounts those achievements from those the child holds most dear, a parent, can undermine countless hours of work and effort by the child, teachers and others. A child who experiences repeated discounting or rejection of their efforts over the course of years may be able to withstand the negativity and emerge as a reasonably mentally and emotionally healthy adult, but it is the exception and not the rule.  Fortunately the opposite is also true. A parent who is supportive, encouraging and positive can be an effective inoculation against the negativity of others.

Self-worth is feeling valued simply because you exist. You don’t need to be or do anything in order to be valued as an individual who is worthy of acceptance, love and respect. We often confuse an individual’s behavior with their worth. A person, whose behavior is poor, does not lose their inherent value as a human being. When we criticize we can easily criticize the person and not the behavior. When we praise we frequently do the same saying, for example, “I’m proud of you” instead of something like “I am proud of the way you conducted yourself” or the “achievement” being commended. It may sound like a small difference, but it can make a significant difference in the way the child or adult actually thinks about self. All too often in therapy we have to help our clients unravel the difference between their value as a person and their behavior because of the criticisms received during childhood and carried into adulthood.

Self-confidence and self-efficacy may seem similar, but they have important differences. Self-confidence is the awareness that I am capable in my life. I might have particularly high levels of confidence in my athletic abilities or certain academic subjects. And increased confidence in myself can expand over time to include a wide range of abilities. Self-efficacy on the other hand is a type of confidence that allows me to believe that I can bring my talents and abilities to a project or endeavor with the belief that I will be successful. And even if my outcome is less than stellar, I know that I have learned more about myself and increased my talents and abilities and so do not suffer the “agony of defeat” in a serious blow to my self-esteem.

The final building block is initiative. It moves us from dreaming to doing. It is the “I want that” put into the action of “how do I get there?” It is also what allows us to take action when we see a “problem” in search of a “solution.” Initiative is me taking charge of my life and pursuing my dreams rather than simply settling for whatever I may be getting. But, to be willing to “initiate” the pursuits of living requires that I stand on the first four building blocks, self-esteem, self-worth, self-confidence and self-efficacy. Without those I am much more likely to take whatever comes along and settle into a life which is unsatisfying and perhaps even unsettling.   

Effective parenting is the cornerstone for the development of life’s building blocks and it is easier to develop these building blocks in your children if you are a mentally and emotionally healthy adult who has these building blocks in place in your life. But, make no mistake, challenges to our self-esteem, feelings of self-worth, self-confidence and the willingness to take on new challenges with the belief we are likely to be successful abound. As adults, it is our task to foster the development of these building blocks in our children and model the continued development of these building blocks in ourselves.