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Popular Culture: America's Self-Esteem Problem

Rewarding children no matter what they do does not create real self-esteem.

Yes, we have a self-esteem problem in our country, but we don't recognize it because, well, we have a self-esteem problem. We need look no further than the bewildering popularity of the reality-TV show Jersey Shore and the instant celebrity garnered from its inhabitants despite their complete absence of qualifications. Though, admittedly, the bar for "success" in America these days is set scarily low; in the case of Jersey Shore (and most of the famous-for-being-famous world), dark tans (haven't they heard of melanoma?), large breasts, muscles, and 'tude seem sufficient.

It is safe to say that these New Jersey denizens hold very high opinions of themselves as expressed in just about everything they say and do. But here's the problem: That so-called self-esteem that makes them seem so self-assured has all the makings of a Potemkin village. In other words, that high regard in which they hold themselves doesn't seem to have any basis in reality.

Not only do they not seem particularly nice or likable or intelligent or mature, but as far as I can tell, they have never actually accomplished anything in their lives. Yet, in the best tradition of Stuart Smalley ("By gosh, I like myself"), they seem to think that they are truly special people because either they have been told they were special all their lives (by their parents?) or they have mastered the art of magical thinking and convinced themselves that they are special, all evidence to the contrary. Here is where Jersey Shore is a microcosm of how many of America's children have been raised (and had their self-esteem lowered) over the last several decades.

Many of today's children do not have true self-esteem

Self-esteem is commonly thought of as how we feel about ourselves; our appraisal of our own self-worth. But real self-esteem is a complex attribute that has become one of the most misunderstood and misused psychological characteristics of the last 40 years. Sometime back in the '70s when the "self-esteem movement" started, a bunch of parenting experts said that raising well-adjusted children is all about self-esteem. And I couldn't agree more.

This is also when America's self-esteem problem began because parents and other influences on self-esteem (e.g., teachers and coaches) got the wrong messages about self-esteem from those experts. Instead of creating children with true self-esteem, our country has created a generation of children who, for all the appearances of high self-esteem, actually have little regard for themselves (because they have little on which to base their self-esteem).

Where did our society err in our failed attempts to build true self-esteem in our children? These same experts told parents that they could build their children's self-esteem by telling them how smart and talented and beautiful and incredible they were ("You're the best, Johnny!"). In other words, parents were led to believe that they could convince their children how wonderful they were.

Unfortunately, life has a way of providing a reality check and children learned the hard way that they weren't as fabulous as their parents told them they were. Parents were also told to praise and reinforce and reward their children no matter what they did. The result: lower self-esteem and children who were self-centered and spoiled.

Schools and communities accepted this misguided attempt at building self-esteem by "protecting" children from failure and feeling bad about themselves. For example, school grading systems were changed. I remember between sixth and seventh grade, my middle school replaced F for failure with NI (Needs Improvement); god forbid I'd feel bad about myself for failing at something!

Youth sports made the same mistake. They eliminated scoring, winners, and losers in the belief that losing would hurt children's self-esteem. My 10-year-old niece came home one day from a soccer tournament with a ribbon that said "#1-Winner" on it. When I asked her what she did to deserve such a wonderful prize, she said that everyone got one! Children are being led to believe that they are winners and can feel good about themselves just by showing up. Definitely not the way the real world works.

American popular culture exacerbates our self-esteem problem by sending messages to children that they can find success, wealth, and celebrity without any capabilities, effort, or time ("By gosh, I deserve it right now just for being me").

So, here we are back at Jersey Shore. These newly minted celebutantes are victims of a self-esteem movement that, instead of developing self-esteem, creates young people who are narcissistic, immature, unmotivated, entitled, and arrogant. The sad reality (and this is reality TV, isn't it?) is that soon a new crop of New Jerseyites, OCers, and Survivors will come along and their 15 minutes of fame will pass. And they will be left with their inevitable descent from B-list to C-list celebrities to off-the-alphabet has-beens. Kind of sad, don't you think? Well, at least they'll still have their "high self-esteem."

And where does that leave America? Well, if Snooki, The Situation, and JWOWW are any indication of the state of America's future, it isn't looking too bright. While this Jersey Shore generation is moving through life feeling so darned good about itself (while accomplishing little), this generation in other countries is actually doing what it takes to build real self-esteem (and accomplishing a lot).

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