Self Esteem: What Stuck Kids Taught Me About What It Means to Matter

Wally, a 21 year old student, glared at me intently as he lept from his chair at the front of the class. He spoke loudly as he demanded, “Tell me why I need to spend 3 hours listening to you on the topic of self-esteem?” Dumbfounded, my internal voice began to stutter. I wondered how he had managed to see my doubt and confusion on this whole troublesome topic.  But I had a class to teach, a job I wanted to keep, and 18 people with a combined 36 sets of eyes looking at me – and one of whom was still standing.

I was 2 weeks fresh as a teacher with 17 to 24 year old students who had past histories involving drug and alcohol addiction, criminal histories, as well as abuse and trauma. Who was I to teach them about self-esteem? I never believed for a moment that I was going to increase their sense of self through a lesson plan. I felt disingenuous as their teacher.

 My doubt and apprehension was quickly overpowered at my fear of losing the students to a riotous protest. As a new teacher I responded from a place of desperation and stupidity. With an unwavering voice I asked my protestor, “Wally, how many years have you been told you were a piece of sh**?” The classroom was silent with the exception of a few inhaled gasps. Some students looked gobsmacked that I had sworn (me included), while others were delighted that things had suddenly become very interesting.

All eyes were affixed on Wally, waiting for him to respond. Without a moment to think he replied, “that would be 21 years in total Deb”. There was both bravado in his response and a palpable sense of sadness that served to soften us both. In my question he had heard a yearning to help him.  In his response he had opened a doorway for us to go through.

I proceeded to ask Wally gently, “Will you give me 3 hours of your life to address the topic of self-esteem then?” He sat down nodding acknowledgement. With his agreement he brought the attention of 17 other students with him.

I don’t remember much from that lecture or lesson plan but I do remember how it affirmed I could survive as a teacher. I realized I could not hide my strong dislike for topics that were aimed at delivering what good caretaking should have, for example, a sense of self-worth.

What these kids needed wasn’t a lesson plan but adults who took care of them. Each of them had their own sad story of how they were left to grow up on their own. My manager assured me that if we took care of the kids first, then the statistics would come and this would tell the story of our success. He was right. Over ninety percent of our kids returned to work or school following the 4-month youth program. I realized in hindsight that what mattered most was not “what we taught them” but who we had become to them.

Every time I present on the topic of self-esteem I recall my dialogue with Wally. He helps me remember what I want to convey most of all to anyone who will listen. If we want our children to feel lovable and worthy as they are then we need to cultivate the relationships that convey they are significant to us.

Wally was right to challenge me as he did. In a funny way I think I gave him the answer he was seeking too – that he mattered to me. It was about welcoming Wally to exist as he was. When Wally graduated from our youth program he seemed to stand a lot taller, more confident in what he had to offer the world. His bravado was subdued, replaced with a sense of self-confidence that was grounded in adult relationships.

Our kids were never meant to work at feeling good about themself nor learn it from a lesson plan. The warm invitation they receive from their adults is what grows them into relational beings who feel lovable and worthy.


Dr. Deborah MacNamara is the Director of Kid’s Best Bet, a counselling and family resource center, on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one).  For more information please see or