Barbara Almond, M.D.

Barbara Almond M.D.

Maternal Ambivalence

Too Much Self-Esteem: A Hidden Hardship

Unrealistic praise can be damaging to a child's self-esteem.

Posted Jun 27, 2011

In the July/August edition of The Atlantic Magazine, Lori Gottlieb has published an important article -"How the Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids." She is drawing our attention to an important consequence of contemporary middle and upper class parenting-our failure to help our children understand and accept their limitations. We are so busy trying to be perfect parents that we lose sight of the more desirable and achievable goal of being "good-enough" parents. Apparently, being perfect parents means we never criticize our children or help them to face their limitations and short-comings. This, in turn, leaves our offspring unprepared for the inevitable disappointments that life hands out even to the most talented and accomplished of them.

An aspect of this attempt at perfectly attuned parenting is the unwillingness to pressure children. They are allowed to give up easily, are praised for mediocre performances and are never to blame. Somehow, blaming is felt to undermine their confidence, rather than confronting them with efforts that fall short of what is needed. Instead, it is teachers, or unfair authorities, or poorly brought up other children who are to blame. What Gottlieb describes is the polar opposite of Amy Chua's tiger mother" approach to child rearing. Chua pressures endlessly and does not hold back on criticism. Her children's self-esteem is won with difficulty. The parents Lori Gottlieb is talking about praise everything and don't burden their children with pressures to try harder. The result seems to be that many young adults feel lost in a forest of endless possibilities and don't understand why they are not happier with what they have achieved.

I find myself wondering whether some of the social factors that contribute to increased maternal (and paternal) ambivalence also contribute to this form of parental "reassuring" that is, in fact, not really assuring at all. Children know perfectly well that not everything they do is perfect and when parents continue to either let them off the hook or to assert that their failure is never their doing, they develop a shaky sense of reality, that leads any failure to result in larger losses of confidence and self-esteem than would be otherwisethe case. The social factors to which I referred earlier are the absence of extended family living close by, and high divorce rates. Mothers, and sometimes fathers, are on their own, struggling with the ambivalence and guilt that leads to false reassurances.

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