Building self-esteem: ‘Phil, Phil, look at me!’

It’s not unusual for a kid to want attention.

This painting has an uncanny resemblance to my birth daughter and adopted son. It was painted by my old friend Sonya Vine. She’s never met either of them.

It’s not unusual for any of us to want to impress.

Who doesn’t want praise and affirmation?

If you’ve had a traumatic start to life you might not know what to do with praise.

The narrative goes something like this:-

My Mum and Dad didn’t love me enough to want me or to keep me safe. 

They chose alcohol or drugs or a violent partner over me.

Therefore, I must be unworthy of love.

Therefore, when someone shows me love, it doesn’t make sense.

I will reject their love.

The life expectancy of a pair of swimming goggles in the hands of a child can be measured in minutes.

I used to spend Saturday mornings perusing the local car boot sales with a nine year old foster kid.

He was generally interested in anything with buttons, particularly old phones or bits of laptops.

On one occasion, in a departure from routine, he spotted a pair of swimming goggles.

He’d been swimming before.

We’d taken him and he’d gone regularly with his school.

He was by no means proficient, but he was quite good at standing by the shallow end, and particularly enjoyed getting crisps from the vending machine.

I am not aware of any research that’s been conducted into why a Vending Machine is so incredibly exciting to the human mind. I’m pretty sure there’s a PhD waiting to happen. I’m happy to help with the project.

For some reason, these goggles caught his imagination, and after a brief haggle, a deal was struck, and the goggles became his.

Like most small kids, he put the goggles on straightaway, and wore them all the way home.

My wife was not surprised to be confronted by a nine year old fully dressed but wearing swimming goggles when we reached home.

Foster carers learn not to be surprised by anything.

What did surprise both of us was his sudden enthusiasm for swimming.

In our city, Foster Carers get free access to local sport centres.

I’m not sure exactly how often we went, but it felt like a lot.

We followed the same routine each time.

Walk to the pool, find the same changing cubicles as yesterday, get changed, find the same locker as yesterday, lock our clothes away, find clothes we’d dropped, reopen the locker, relock the locker, head to the pool, stand on the edge of the pool, consider if it was deep or cold or if there were sharks.

And most importantly, put on the goggles.

On the first few trips, we didn’t even get wet.

Foster carers learn to be patient.

But gradually, after a few weeks, we started to paddle, then graduated to wading, and eventually we were ready to put our head under the water.

The goggles, a bargain at 50 pence, suddenly came into their own.

As we explored every inch of the three foot deep shallow end, his confidence grew.

Clinging on to my back, we tentatively began to head to deeper waters.

Within a few months, we were undeniably moving through water, perhaps in a close approximation of ‘swimming’.

Our feet were still on the bottom, but foster carers learn not to be too pedantic about such details.

Then, one day, he climbed out onto the side.

‘Kids in care want the same as everyone else. They just go about getting it using alternative strategies’. Wise words from one of our Social Workers.

He slid back in.

He repeated this several more times.

And then it happened

‘Phil, Phil, look at me!’

The kid jumped in.

‘Well done’ I said.

We’d learnt not to be too effusive with our praise.

He sniffed it out immediately if it was said without conviction or sincerity.

He invariably reacted angrily or even violently if you actually meant it.

We had seen him destroy artwork, schoolwork, phones, presents and anything else that suggested he was worthy of praise.

But this was still a golden golden moment.

By drawing attention to his progress, he was showing pride in himself. The narrative of self loathing was being undone, one swimming trip at a time.

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Birth parent, Foster Carer, Adopter and Recruiter of Foster Carers for Liverpool City Council

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