Let’s pretend that your child’s psyche is a container into which you can pour any mix of personality traits you wish. In my imaginary world, you can skip right past the terrible twos and the trying teens. You get to concoct your ideal offspring. Here are a few sample traits to get you started:
Which traits are most important? If your top five includes high self-esteem – if you want your pumpkin to possess an enthusiastically favorable impression of himself – then I don’t think I want my kid hanging out with your kid.
It’s nothing personal. It’s just that kids who grow up with too much praise and too much protection from the esteem-busting realities of life are headed for a downfall. Eventually, they will be forced to reconcile an inflated opinion against an anemic reality. Here’s an example...
Last year, I spent several hours interviewing members of the Occupy Wall Street movement for a blog post that I never wrote. Most of the interviewees were in their late teens and early twenties, which means that their childhoods coincided with the everyone-gets-a-trophy self-esteem movement. Two things surprised me about the kids with whom I spoke.
First, it was encouraging to learn that many of them were well-read and thoughtful. Very few resembled the angry, defecating vandals who took center stage on YouTube.
Second, I was struck by their collective sense of entitlement. They seemed quite accustomed to being cared for by benevolent third-parties, and they openly stated that food, education, and other amenities should be provided to them free of charge.
I found myself asking pointed questions, as one is apt to do after encountering a public confession so unusual it causes a person to forget his manners. You like haggis? You know it’s a stomach stuffed with the bits we normally feed to stray dogs, right? Were you in a prison camp or something?
I had simply never heard a list of demands announced so dispassionately. People usually appear angry or wounded when reciting the world’s debt to them. Instead, these kids were presenting a simple, objective equation: I was born, therefore I should be gratified.
I pressed some of them to identify who, exactly, should be indentured to fulfill their wants and desires. Some mumbled and stammered as if it were the first time they had considered the question. Others offered the pat answer, “the rich should pay for it, screw the rich.” Lost in a fog of haggis confusion, I questioned them further. You know we’re going to burn through the rich people’s money quickly, right? Who should be forced to take care of you when their money is gone? And what are you offering in return?
That’s when the emotion finally showed up. They didn’t like that type of question. One of the less articulate young men became frustrated and exclaimed, “God dammit, you’re making this more complicated than I see it!”
They seemed like children with very high self-esteem. Clearly I was disturbing a worldview in which they had been the shiny little centers of the universe. They had probably been praised for every BM, until their self-esteem was sky-high and their ability to appraise their real worth to other human beings was severely impaired. Their elders had sent them careening through life possessed of the assumption that they were exceptionally valuable individuals.
The cruel joke of the self-esteem movement is that the world does not cater to that belief. A teacher might give them a gold star for spelling their name correctly, but real-life adults such as bosses and spouses will expect a lot more. Anyone who was consistently issued a trophy for showing up to the game, and consequently had their sense of efficacy lovingly beaten out of them, will be at a loss when the free ride comes to an end and they are expected to contribute something to the world.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want children to feel bad about themselves. I spent the first half of my life loathing myself, and many years after that trying to recoup lost time. Unrealistic self-appraisal can work in a negative direction too, and I certainly don’t want my daughter to endure that. Nor do I want to overcorrect for that possibility, hobbling her with the inability to create actual self-worth.
So what is a parent to do? Rather than teaching self-esteem, I will try to follow my grandfather’s example and give her self-respect.
His take on life was very different from the protestors I met. He supported his family through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. When the New Deal was struck, he refused to accept WPA work because he regarded it as busywork that failed to satisfy a real need in the world. His desire to be a respectable person compelled him to reject a handout and instead make his own way.
Self-esteem and self-respect are very different ideas. They are nearly opposites. Self-respect is based on what we see ourselves doing, and the value that we bring to other people; self-esteem can be entirely disconnected from the value we bring to others. It can be gained in front of a mirror. That’s why American students can feel good about their math skills despite being left in the dust by children of other nations.
Like any other child, my daughter will spend a lot of time thinking about herself. I hope she learns that doing good, respectable things is the surest way to earn pride in herself. She will never meet her WPA-rejecting great-grandfather, but she can carry a little bit of him forward.
As for her self-esteem, I will approach it the same way I approach her appendix. If it causes a problem, then we will deal with it. Otherwise, it is to be ignored.
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Dr. Smith is a psychologist in Denver, Colorado
and the author of The User's Guide to the Human Mind: Why Our Brains Make Us Unhappy, Anxious, and Neurotic and What We Can Do about It
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