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A Parenting Expert Explains Why You Should Teach Your Kids To Celebrate Themselves

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May 16, 2021
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Studies show that, whether big or small, celebrations matter because they offer opportunities to reflect and show gratitude. Enjoying big and small celebrations adds a little ceremony to life, and birthdays, in particular, matter because they signify your beginning and the joy of life. With our birth, we are given a chance to fulfill our unique purpose, and those moments are worthy of recognition. But it is the collection of thousands of small cheerful observances that builds the habit to celebrate, which in turn helps to hardwire these virtues and values into our children. 

Though a child's environment can fuel motivation because it may offer praise, not all children will receive that recognition or be in supportive environments that salute them. Therefore, it is essential that all children have self-affirmations and pride in themselves to boost their self-esteem and improve their self-efficacy—that is, their capacity to create change outside of themselves.

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Celebrating and honoring themselves will put kids in an ideal position to feel good about themselves, conceptualize ideas, and feel capable of leading initiatives. 

How celebrations can change children — particularly girls — for the better.

Feeling like you are a person of worth—having good self-esteem—is essential for all of us, but especially for girls. Having high self-esteem gives girls the confidence they need to be joyful, which in turn helps them feel powerful enough to want to change the world. 

Very young girls often have a high valuation of themselves that declines over time. In our work at SuperCamp (a summer program founded by the author), we find that elementary-school-age girls have good self-esteem; they do not have difficulty identifying and naming the things they are good at and things they like about themselves. They are unabashed. Without shame and often with much pride, they quickly and easily respond to probing questions about themselves. "I am a really good speller." "I can run faster than everyone in my class." "I am really smart." "Every time I get a good grade, I dance around my room." They enjoy and celebrate themselves consistently. 

As girls move from elementary to middle school and further into puberty, their positive self-evaluations decline; their self-esteem decreases. They become more self-critical and more aware and cautious of the ways they are perceived. They are concerned about being seen as too self-congratulatory, so they wait for others to congratulate them. The internal power they had when they were young begins to wane as external evaluations begin to have more value.

This process continues as they age; by the time they get to high school, girls have to be reminded that it is OK to feel good about their own skills and talents. Though the self-confidence of tween and early teen girls plunges, they continue to outperform boys academically. Consequently, many people mistake their success for confidence.

Help your kids develop a positive self-talk habit. Help them create an affirmation. 

To get started with creating more positive self-talk, help your girl develop and choose affirming and motivational mantras she can use throughout the day and again at night. This could be a simple private declaration, such as "I am powerful" or the mantra "[Insert her name], you got this." At the end of each day, ask her to share with you something about herself that she is proud of.

Routinize these small celebratory moments until she starts coming to you, screaming out, "Wanna hear what I did today? I am so proud of myself for..." The more she is able to see herself as the subject of her story, the more confident she will become. These moments are not about self-aggrandizement. The focus should be identifying and recognizing the power of her own agency and her ability to overcome real or imagined obstacles. 

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Create and surround your child with positive mental images or visualizations of success. 

The phrases and words we choose should be those that can propel us toward our goals. These mental images create visual pictures of ourselves doing exactly what we say we want to do, and they create imprints in our minds. Fundamentally, they tie our beliefs to our actions. 

Take a few minutes with your girl to visualize yourselves doing the things you want. Focus on the feelings you want to have at the end of an activity or experience. Let your thoughts linger on these images until the emotions become real for you. Practice these visualizations daily. They are useful in your fitness program, for your courageous conversations, on a work project, etc. 

Use these visualization exercises to create a yearly vision board. A vision board is an excellent way to help you and your girl identify, define, and clarify what you really want in your lives. Focus on goals and empower your girl to create the life she imagines through the identification of goals. 

As a reminder, the purpose of these boards is to help you and your girl generate a new plan, develop different outlooks, and formulate alternatives. 

For your child's next birthday, ask them what they want to do. 

What may be celebratory to parents may not have value for their daughters. Plan your girl's party together, the refreshments, party favors, guest list, theme—all of it. Make the process as collaborative as possible. Begin this practice as early as 5 years old, and over time, share with her your budget so that she is aware of the parameters. Develop an annual tradition of creating this special day together so that, no matter what, she feels special about her birthday.

It is also important that she understands that her birthday and the celebration of her birth may not happen on the same day. Celebrations of her life can happen on the weekend of her birthday, the week before, or the week after. The only way she will understand this nuance is if you explicitly explain it to her. So begin now; start talking with her. 

She will learn how to celebrate herself if you provide her with an example. For your next birthday, plan a party with a purpose. Birthdays will come every year, like it or not. But you can decide what your birthday can mean to you, and how it should be celebrated. 

Excerpt adapted from Parent Like It Matters by Janice Johnson Dias, copyright © 2021 by Janice Johnson Dias. Used by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Janice Johnson Dias, Ph.D.
Janice Johnson Dias, Ph.D.

Janice Johnson Dias, Ph.D. is a tenured associate professor of sociology at John Jay College in New York City. She is the co-founder and president of the public health and social action organization GrassROOTS Community Foundation and leads its SuperCamp for girls. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Temple University. Her collaborative work on Black girls’ mental, sexual, and physical health issues earned her a special congressional recognition and grants from the Robert Wood Johnson and Annie E. Casey foundations. Her work on the effects of safety on girls’ physical activity in low-income neighborhoods led her to serve as an advisor to the city of Newark, where she focused on violence as a public health issue. Born in Jamaica, Johnson Dias moved to the United States at age 12 and now lives in New Jersey with her husband, Scott, daughter, Marley, and dog, Philly.