By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
IRVING — Longtime youth ministry professional Robert J. McCarty used humor and offered solid strategies in his presentation on building young people’s self-esteem during the University of Dallas Ministry Conference at the Irving Convention Center on Oct. 24.
McCarty, who has served as the executive director for the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry since 1997, opened his talk on “Self Esteem: Making Champions of our Young People” by promising a “fun” workshop.
He read an excerpt that lamented the bad behavior and general disappointing state of young people that sounded as though it described contemporary youth. But McCarty had the audience gasping in surprise when he said that the centuries-old excerpt quoted Socrates.
McCarty poked fun at himself by describing his antics as a teenager and engaged the audience with his enthusiasm for having recently become a grandfather.
But he also delivered interesting perspectives on self-esteem, learning to dance and the value of teaching kids how to behave at a funeral.
McCarty invited audience participation as he compiled a list of examples of ways to foster self-esteem in adolescents and teens.
He said that the great self-esteem myth is that if kids feel good about themselves, then they will do good things. McCarty said the more accurate statement is that if kids start to do good things, then they will feel better about themselves.
McCarty urged parents, ministers and educators to ask young people their opinions often and to listen intently to their answers.
He said that “achievement models” for building self-esteem contain the flaw of being competitive because they focus on success in academics, sports or the arts.
“It sets kids against each other,” he said. “It’s a lose-lose.
“Our kids have to know that we love them for who they are and not for what they do.”
But young people also require boundaries to help them avoid growing up with a sense of entitlement and little regard for working toward their goals, he said.
And for some young people, being respected means more than being loved, said McCarty, who cited examples from his work with delinquents.
He said that telling teens to lead a more faith-filled life means far less than specifically naming skills and behaviors that foster such a life.
“Say, ‘Here’s what faith-filled people do,’ ” McCarty said. “For kids to do good, kids need the skills for doing good.”
McCarty termed value systems the “psychological backbones” and called the support systems the “scaffolds” for those backbones.
“What do you want present in your kids’ lives while they’re building that backbone?” he said. “We want to surround our kids with the best possible support systems.”
He said that young people connected to church are one-half as likely to engage in risky behaviors.
McCarty emphasized that life-skills training in a variety of areas can enhance self-esteem. He told of a group of teens who attended a dear classmate’s funeral but remained outside. They later said that they did not know what to do at the funeral.
He said that instruction in how to behave in such settings can help teens gain self-esteem.
“Kids need help with social competence training,” he said. “Teach kids to dance–think of the payoffs in the adult world.”
On-the-spot praise of a young person demonstrating good behavior can be powerful and transformative, McCarty said.
“You will see the difference,” he said. “Catch the kids doing something right.”