> Family > Parenting

A Lesson in Self Esteem

May 8, 2009 | by Slovie Jungreis-Wolff

Teaching our kids who they really are and what makes them special.

Dear Slovie,

My 12 year old, Zack, is in 7th grade. At his middle school there is a clique of 'popular' kids who have begun having Bar/Bat Mitzvah parties. My son, though he is kind, funny, intelligent and warm, has always had a hard time making many friends because of his shyness in social situations. It's hard for him to be social and he's not invited to most of these Bar/Bat Mitzvah parties. Most of the kids hand out sweatshirts as favors at their parties. The Monday after their Saturday night party, all of the kids who were at the party come to school wearing the sweatshirt. My son comes home many Monday's feeling sad.

Last Saturday night, my son attended a party of a boy whose father does business with my husband. (Which is why he was invited since this boy doesn't really talk to my son).When Monday morning came my husband and I told Zack he was not allowed to wear the sweatshirt to school because I remembered the lessons you taught us about teaching our children compassion. We told him that just as his feelings were hurt on so many Mondays, other children will be hurting now. And it's also like bragging that you went to a popular boy's Bar Mitzvah. He listened but wasn't happy. When he came home he said that all the kids who were wearing their sweatshirts made the others feel bad anyway so why couldn't he wear his? I told him that regardless of what others did he knew he didn't cause others pain.

I feel like it was a character–building experience that he will one day understand. Please let me know if I did the right thing.


I read the email and had to pause for a moment. I was incredibly moved by this mother's courageous determination to teach her child a lesson in compassion. After all, wouldn't most parents want their children to finally 'fit in' and wear the 'right shirt'? But the truth is, this mother not only taught her child to open his heart, she also gave him the gift of self esteem.

Later that night, Amy and I spoke.

"The first thing I want you to do," I began, "is to sit down with your son and have a conversation. Tell him how proud you are of the way he respected your decision, even though it was difficult for him to carry through. Too often we criticize our children but neglect to tell them how proud we are of them.

"Next, I would like you to explain to Zack that when he feels hurt by other's in life, he should always try to remember that feeling so that he never inflicts pain on anyone else. It would be so much easier, of course, to just forget about the other kids who are feeling sad and leave them behind. But then what? You are acting the same way as those who hurt you. The point of going through something is not to grow insensitive, but, rather, to grow from the experience and become a kinder, more compassionate human being. That way, you know in your heart of hearts that you have taken the higher road, and that is the greatest road to take in life."

"That is exactly the lesson I wanted Zack to walk away with," Amy said.

Are you only as good as the designer label on your shirt?

"But here is the greatest lesson of all," I added. "Think about this and ask Zack this question. If these kids are being nice to him and including him only when he wears the 'in' sweatshirt, what kind of friends are these? What happens next week, when he's back Monday morning without the right sweatshirt on? Are they back to not including him because he wasn't at the big weekend party? If someone is your friend only for the label on your shirt, is that called a true friend? And then, if you lose the label, do you lose your friends? Do you lose your sense of self? Are you only as good as the sweatshirt on your back? Ask yourself, without this shirt, who am I?"

"I never thought of it like that," Amy mused.

Angels on Earth

"Listen, Amy, I want to tell you a story, and I want you to relay this story to Zack. When my children were little we would often stay at my parent's home for Shabbos. My siblings would join us with all their little ones and though space was tight, incredible love and laughter filled the house. Friday night, after finishing the meal, all the cousins would gather together and ask my mother to tell them a story. 'Bubba, can you tell us about when you were a little girl?' they would say.

"No matter how exhausted she was, my mother would settle down with her sweet grandchildren around her, waiting to hear their Bubba's tales.

"One of my children's most requested stories was my mother's description of Shabbos in Bergen-Belsen. Each week, my Zaydah, my grandfather, would set aside his meager portion of stale bread. When Friday night would arrive, Zaydah would gather his children close, together with Mama, my grandmother.

"'Close your eyes, kinderlach', Zaydah would whisper. 'Imagine that you are home and the Shabbos candles are lit. The flames are dancing and Mama's challah is warm. The house is filled with light.' Zaydah would take out his hidden crumbs and share them with us.

"Zaydah then began to hum 'Shalom Aleichem', the prayer we say to welcome the angels into our home. For those few minutes we were back home, away from all the darkness. One week, my little brother called out, 'Tatty, you are welcoming angels but I don't see any angels here!' Zaydah began to cry. He looked at us and said, 'You, my most precious children, you are the angels.'

It's not your sweatshirt, your iPod, or your car that defines you. It is your heart, your soul and your deeds.

"'And you know what, my children?' my mother asked. 'Each morning I had to stand at roll call in the freezing cold. I was dressed in rags, my head shaved, covered in lice. I was starving. I looked at those Nazi guards standing across from me in their shiny boots and fancy uniforms, all neat and perfect. But to me they had nothing and I had everything. I would never in a million years want to be one of them. I would rather be barefoot and freezing but still be me, the daughter of Zaydah and Mama, an angel here on earth.'"

"Amy," I said, "Here is your opportunity to teach Zack an incredible lesson for life. It's not your sweatshirt, your iPod, your sneakers or your car that defines you. It is your heart, your soul, your deeds, and how you impact others in this world that tells you who you are. Especially now, when we are all feeling the 'economic crunch', and we are unable to give our children so many of the things we've taken for granted, we need to give our kids a true sense of what really counts in life. Really, who are you and what makes you special?"

"I can't wait to speak to Zack," Amy said. "There is so much I want to share with him. You're right, we have been feeling stressed from all the financial pressures right now…and I know that if I give Zack an understanding of who he is I'll be giving him one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child."

Recently, I received an email from Amy:

Dear Slovie,

I just dropped Zack off at school. It's Monday! As he was getting out of the car, Zack turned to me and said, Look Mom, there are all those kids in those silly sweatshirts; and then he laughed. And I laughed too. Thank you for helping me teach my son one of the greatest lessons of his life.


It is up to us, parents, to ask ourselves: Who am I? What defines me? And how do my children define themselves? If we are able to discover our sense of self beyond the cars that we drive and the labels on our backs, we will then be able to impart to our children a greater understanding of 'self'. They will be fortified to climb the many mountains that life's challenges bring. And that is 'true' self esteem.

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