How can you, as a parent, offer both autonomy and support to a baby? What can you do to encourage a child’s positive self-image, to build his positive feelings about who he is becoming?

Being warm and loving is the first step. But you also need to model, transmit and reinforce attitudes most likely to serve him in confronting challenges and solving problems — for example, patience, perseverance and resourcefulness.

An increasing number of studies are showing how strongly children identify with parental patterns of behavior. If we’re too critical, the child will learn to be critical and see criticism as an acceptable way to treat others or himself.

While we can’t change our own styles and outlook just to influence our children, we can learn to nurture a child’s initiative and self-esteem.

Here’s a brief outline of the many opportunities to build a child’s self-esteem.


1-4 months: Lean over the baby to elicit his smiles and vocalizations. As he smiles, you smile. But wait for his next smile or vocalization. When he produces one, reinforce it with a gentle imitation. As he smiles over and over, watch his face for recognition of his achievement in influencing your response. Don’t overwhelm him.

4-6 months: As you lean over the baby, vocalize gently. Wait for him to try to imitate you. When he does, let your face express your realization of what he’s done.

6-8 months: Play peekaboo in a way that will encourage him to imitate you. Then follow his behavior, don’t lead. At one point, break the rhythm by not opening your hands. Watch his face as he recognizes this change in the pattern.

8-10 months: As you read a picture book to him, ask, “Where is the doggie?” If he can point to it, encourage him. “Where is the Mommy?” He points. You say, “Right.” His face glows.


5-8 months: Let him hold a spoon or cup when you feed him.

8-10 months: Let him begin to pick up two or three small bits of food to feed himself. Don’t worry if he drops them.

10-12 months: Let him imitate you with a few sips in a cup, and let him try using a spoon.

12-16 months: Let him continue to feed himself finger food and hold his own bottle (in your lap).

16 months: Let him use a fork to spear his food. Let him decide whether he wants to eat or not, but don’t try too many choices just to please him.


1-2 years: Give him occasions for play with peers. Prepare him ahead of time. Don’t leave him until he’s ready, but encourage him to stay in a play group without you. Interfere as little as possible in toddlers’ play. Even biting, scratching and hair pulling can be learning opportunities if you can stay out of it.

However, don’t leave a child too many times with an overwhelmingly aggressive or passive playmate. He’ll learn most from equal relationships. Don’t push him to share his toys. Let other children teach him. Set out toys that he can share.

3-5 years: Encourage him to play independently with others. Stay out of their crises. Reward him for his successes in learning about others. Encourage one or two regular playmates so he can get to know them well and rely on them. They’ll give him the skills he needs to be competent with other children, like sharing and being considerate of others’ feelings.

When he can make friends, he’s ready to master a group of children, and he’ll feel proud of himself when he does.

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. Questions may also be sent by email to:

[email protected]