Youngsters with a good self-image live happier lives. Who better to pass the message on than parents? Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer reports
More than 200 parents, educators and policy-makers from 10 countries will gather in Cambridge this weekend to discuss an issue seen as they key to life, love and happiness - self-esteem. Not surprisingly, most of the key speakers come from North America. Is this another example of certain sane and solid Brits having their heads turned by West Coast psycho- babble? Should it be sneered at as some cranky new religion? Or are these pilgrims on to something? Does it really make practical sense, and if it does, what has it got to do with everyday parenting?

The answers to the last three questions are "yes", "it does", and "a lot". We all develop our sense of who we are and whether we are competent, valued and likeable from early childhood, and the first messages we get about ourselves are from our parents.

Self-esteem makes a practical difference, too. Children who have a positive self-image are less likely to present behaviour and discipline problems, less likely to fight with siblings or engage in anti-social behaviour. They are better at making and keeping friends, better able to handle change and setbacks, and more likely to have wider interests and do well at school.

How can parents help children to acquire this magic ingredient? Few parents knowingly do their children down. The damage is done because many adults are simply insensitive to the impact of careless words and thoughtless behaviour. Raising children's self-esteem involves tuning into children's needs and feelings, and appreciating what makes them feel good about themselves and what undermines their confidence and self-belief.

Children feel competent when their parents or carers value them and accept them for who they are, when they spend time with them, listen to, understand, respect and trust them, encourage their talents and show pride in their achievements, and when they cuddle and talk affectionately to them. Consistency is important, too. Where family rules, relationships and routines are predictable, children feel secure. They believe someone is protecting their interests. The relationship is based on mutual trust and respect, not power.

Self-esteem is damaged, by contrast, in unpredictable and inconsistent environments in which the adults frequently play power games and regularly seek to control and humiliate. Unhelpful parents are quick to blame, criticise and punish. They emphasise failure instead of achievements, and show little interest in and respect for children's thoughts, wishes and feelings. They seem distant and uncaring.

Most of us try hard to stay in the first category, but it is depressingly easy to slip into the second, particularly when we've had a bad day, or night, and are feeling pretty low ourselves.

How familiar are these reactions? "Don't worry me with that now. Can't you see I'm busy?" "If you hadn't made me angry, I wouldn't have burned the tea." "That homework's awful. Look at all those spelling mistakes, and you haven't underlined any of the headings." "By the way, I'm out tonight. You'll have to find something to eat from the fridge."

Of course, how we feel about ourselves affects how we behave towards others. When we feel vulnerable, we can make ourselves feel better by putting someone else down. Realising that this is what is happening is the way back to the positive track. Saying: "I went over the top. I'm sorry," or, even better, "I'm in a foul mood after an awful day. I need a few moments to myself to recover" can stop the relationship plummeting.

Parents keen to nurture their children's self-esteem must protect their own. Time to recharge, scope to feel valued, and have problems at least acknowledged, are prerequisites. But self-esteem does not mean self-obsession. Parents will succeed only if their children are given significant, and reliable, space in their lives.