real life

Charlie Pickering: "This is just as important as learning to read."

Charlie Pickering


When I was a kid, my Mum thought I was going to go bald.

I had very thin, wispy locks that gave every indication that they weren’t going to go the distance. My mum, worried that I was headed for a Sampson-like crisis, decided that the best thing to do was build my confidence.

Her hope was that, by the time the inevitable depilation happened, she’d have created a young man confident enough to get by. As it turned out, by the age of fourteen my hair had rebounded to become one of the healthiest mops in the post-Garfunkle era and what she had in fact created was a monster.

Despite the outcome, there is something to be said for her thinking. Last year, during a discussion about cosmetic surgery on Q&A, I suggested that whatever people choose to do, the important thing was to not index your self-esteem to your appearance.

Judging by the response I got from people who have struggled with body image issues, or had kids who were wrestling with how they see themselves, the idea seemed to connect.

Now, whether I got it from my mum or not, I’m not entirely sure.  It’s always just made sense to me. That may be because, much like my hair, I was a late-bloomer. I was smaller than my high-school peers and never really used my looks to get ahead in the world. I always had to rely on other things like my sense of humor, personality or a propensity to over-share my opinions.

It may also be that, to me, it always seemed like a terrible bet. Not a single person in the world can guarantee their looks will work for them forever. Whether we like it or not, everybody ages. Some people who are gorgeous kids make less gorgeous adults and positively weird looking seniors.

Some kids that don’t look like the models in Dolly magazine grow up to be the most stunning people on the planet. So to stake your identity and sense of self-worth on something as temporary and subjective as looks, always struck me as akin to building your house out of straw.

And if you go by the content of newspapers, magazines, TV programs like mine and websites like this, we have found ourselves in a time of great crisis where the wellbeing of our children is under an unprecedented threat. We’re not entirely sure what from, but they are under threat. We call it cyber bullying, or peer pressure or body image issues but we seem to believe that, because of the media, social media and other kids, that they are under threat like never before.

While this is fairly new problem, it is by no means the greatest threat our children have faced. In the 1800s rates of infant mortality ranged from 10%-20%, with even more dying of diseases in early childhood or teen years. Families with as many as 10 children would routinely have three or four pass away from illnesses that came as mysterious thieves in the night.

Before that, things were worse, with the most basic concepts of hygiene and disease treatment yet to be learned. (Hell, if you go back far enough, kids were being killed off by sabre tooth tigers until we effectively taught kids to avoid them…but perhaps that’s going a little too far back).


My point is that while these threats were very real and very devastating, they have been overcome. They have been overcome by in improved understanding and in many cases by inoculation in infancy and early childhood. So, now that polio, measles and smallpox are no longer a threat, what should we inoculate for next?

“Self Esteem should be taught as a basic skill, from the earliest age possible.”

I humbly suggest that we begin inoculating our young children against the other mysterious thieves that come and take them.

Voices of doubt, voices of self-hate, the destructive, cowardly voices of others hiding behind the anonymity of a computer keyboard.

Rather than our kids having no immunity to these pathogens, we need to, from an early age, build resistance.

So that whatever technological advances happen, whatever new ways they may be exposed, they are robust and strong against attack.

So how do we do it? We can’t just inject our kids with self-esteem. We can’t just give them a teaspoon of bravado. The resistance needs to be psychological and emotional. So what do we do?

We make self-esteem the new literacy.

It should be taught as a basic skill, from the earliest age possible. As a child learns to read and write and add and subtract, they should be learning their self-worth and to value themselves as highly as anything else in the world. Just in the way that literacy for the masses was the key to social mobility, industrialization and the creation of a modern civilized world, self-esteem for all will make that civilized world more livable.

I don’t claim this idea as entirely original. One of the world’s great educators, Ken Robinson, has discussed creativity being as important as literacy. And there is no reason why other fundamental skills cannot be approached in the same way.

I don’t expect parents to know how to do this. We don’t expect parents to know how to teach literacy and numeracy. That job is done by skilled and brilliant teachers who have benefited from centuries of improvements to our education system.

Over more than a millennium we have built an education system that, for all it’s flaws, is capable of teaching a common language, complicated communication and mathematical processes to millions upon millions of children. There is no reason why it cannot teach indelible self-esteem.

What worries me about the tone of our discussions of these difficult topics is the way we often cast our children as impotent, incapable and so fragile as to need overtly protective solutions cast upon them. Yet talk to any new parent and they will be able to share a story of how they have been amazed at their child’s capacity for learning and imagination.

Rather than seeing our children as vulnerable and unable to handle the diseases this brave new world is throwing at them, let’s see them as the miraculous, resourceful learning machines they are.

Charlie Pickering is a comedian, writer and broadcaster. After quitting his job as a lawyer, he began a career in standup and is currently host of The Project on Channel 10. You can find his website here.

What life skill do you wish you’d been taught at school? Is self esteem as important as learning to read and write?