BUILDING A STRONG FOUNDATION:
Our Children's Self-esteem
I always wondered how my daughter would first come to recognize herself as different from hearing people. When would it happen? At age two, three, four, or five? How would it affect her? We had always been thankful for her outgoing personality and gusto for life, and felt that these traits would help her through the challenges of not "being like all the other kids". And anyway, each child is unique and brings a beautiful piece of the puzzle which makes up humanity, so who cares if she's "different". As one of three daughters born to my husband and I, we strive to build confidence and a healthy self-esteem in each of our children by building in them the strength of character traits we hold as valuable. Respect for others, compassion, belief in God, beauty within, etc.
My own confidence as a parent, however, was challenged when our daughter was identified with a hearing loss. What would her "label" be? Deaf, Hard of Hearing, Oral, Hearing Impaired? Should we give her a "label"? How would others "label" her? The label didn't bother me as much as the importance of my daughter to see herself in a positive, healthy way! As I had some experiences with my daughter as she grew, and as I heard the stories of other Deaf adults, I have come to see some important issues surrounding self-esteem in children who are deaf/hh.
BE THERE: As your child becomes aware of the fact that they can not hear like those around them, meet their questions and comments head on, acknowledging their feelings, positive and negative, and reinforcing their worth. My daughter has made comments like:
"When I grow up, I won't have to wear hearing aids " (yep, you probably will) , "It's cool to be Deaf" ( Yes, it is! ), "Why did God want me to be hard of hearing?" ( Probably so you can be a better listener with your heart ) "When I grow up, I'll have to marry a deaf man." ( You can marry a deaf or hearing person, just as long as he's good looking and treats you good! ) There have been many other conversations around making friends, being teased, and sibling equality. Being afraid to talk to your children about the issues that come up in their lives because of their deafness will only reinforce in their minds the idea that something is "wrong" with them. In order to acknowledge and work through the feelings your children may be having, you must also work through your own feelings about having a child who is deaf/hh.
ROLE MODELS/ PEERS: When our daughter was two and a half, she saw "the Princess with the Hearing Aid" (The Miss America pageant) and jumped up and down with excitement! She began to see older people with hearing aids on, and wondered why she was the only kid with hearing aids. I began to realize the importance of exposing her to other children who were deaf/hh. She attended a preschool where there were other kids who were deaf/hh. As a parent, I have appreciated so much getting to know some deaf/hh adults who have been not only role models for my daughter, but also for me. I have seen adults who use ASL who are happy, productive members of society, proud of their language and heritage. I have met oral hard of hearing adults who are fun to be with, and have wonderful families. I think, having the opportunity to meet both deaf and hard of hearing, sign users, and oral adults, has helped me as a parent to know that my daughter can succeed in life. There are excellent books on the contributions Deaf people have made to society. Exposing your child to Deaf culture in your community, through magazines, and the Internet, are other ways to build your child's self esteem. There are some great children's books that deal with building self-esteem in children, such as " I'm Deaf and It's Okay" by Lorraine Aseltine. There is an excellent article by Allen E. Sussman, Ph.D. on the characteristics of a well Adjusted Deaf Person. He states, "The well-adjusted deaf person possesses a positive self-concept and a healthy level of self-esteem. She does not think she is less of a person because of her deafness. She does not evaluate her worth as a person according to her English or oral skills. Hence, the development, fostering and enhancement of positive self-concepts and high levels of self-esteem laced with opportunities to experience success and achievement, begins with parents and then in school."
The importance of building self-esteem in children who are deaf/hh is directly related to mental health, success in school, and ultimately success in life. As parents, we have the privilege and responsibility of building a foundation for our children which will enable them to accept themselves for who they are, to communicate confidently in the world around them, and to get out there and change the world!