Self-Esteem Nation

Protecting self-esteem per se is not a good idea.

Posted Nov 23, 2013

I saw it as a soccer coach of my 10-year-old daughter’s team. After a barrage of whimpering from my team about needing a break and wanting to play certain positions and it being too hot 10 minutes into a practice, I blew my whistle and, paralleling the famous line from A League of Their OwnI proclaimed: “There is no whining in soccer.” “But we’re girls,” said an offending player with a moan. “We are supposed to whine.”

My wife sees it at the PTA planning meetings. “I just went off,” she told me coming home from a recent meeting. “The kids don’t need a cupcake or a sticker every time they do something that they are supposed to do and I am tired of it! Children should have an intrinsic desire to be good citizens—that should be a basic expectation, not achieved with a bribe!” I saw it as a psychological supervisor of endless assessments of college students who complained of poor grades, despite working hard, and thus they assumed they must be deserving of accommodations. The sentiment was echoed as I recently interviewed staff psychologists at our college counseling center. They reported an increasing lack of distress tolerance and the need for coaching on handling negative emotions and disappointments. One remarked, “And not only are there helicopter parents, there are now snowplow parents. Rather than having children carve their own path in life, snowplow parents carve it for them.” These anecdotes are backed by large scale data, indisputably documenting that college students are becoming increasingly neurotic. Indeed, some see us becoming a nation of wimps.

By the term “self-esteem nation,” I mean the cultural belief that we must, as parents, friends, coaches, therapists, and educators, work hard to protect and enhance the self-esteem of our children. And the flip side of this is that we must protect them from feeling badly about themselves. So, we must be careful about being too critical, or having them feel like they are lesser compared to their peers. This, of course, is a simple, basic idea, and I certainly hope my kids have high self-esteem. And it is essential that kids are provided a deep sense of emotional security, provided a general positive regard, and are not fundamentally shamed or controlled in an authoritarian way. But how people are thinking about self-esteem (and the flip side, disappointment, negative feelings, etc.) is largely confused.

Self-esteem research was all the rage back in the 1980s. Psychological researchers found it to be correlated with all sorts of mental health outcomes. High self-esteem kids (and adults) were more resilient, had less depression, had more friends, achieved better, and on and on. This finding became so popular that it seeped deeply into the public consciousness. But a key point was lost in translation. And it is one of the most basic lessons one learns in logic, stats and research design courses. Correlation does not mean causation! That high self-esteem was associated with all these good outcomes does not mean that we should do everything we can to raise kids self-esteem per se. Indeed, high self-esteem was associated with better functioning for a very simple reason. Esteem means respect. Kids have more self-respect when they observe themselves functioning better. The esteem is like a barometer for their sense of effectiveness.

But what the public heard was that self-esteem was good for kids and therefore we need to create systems that work hard to protect it. For example, in my first soccer coach orientation, I was told that I should only give positive feedback because research shows that negative feedback might negatively impact children’s self-esteem. The logic here is that because self-esteem is good, we therefore would not want a coach doing anything that might hurt some kids’ self-esteem.

Unfortunately, the logic is bass-akwards. If you recognize the barometer model of self-esteem, you realize that protecting self-esteem for its own sake is like breaking open the dashboard of your car and sticking your fuel indicator at full and then believing that you will never need to buy gas again. It is absurd. High self-esteem is associated with good mental health outcomes largely because kids who are effective at accomplishing things such as academics, sports, hobbies and social connections have a good portfolio of investing productively in things, thus have good self-efficacy in those domains, and thus are resilient in the face of stress. Not surprisingly, all of that is associated with kids feeling good about themselves. Thus, it is a complicated correlational matrix. Self-esteem enhancement or protection per se is not a good idea. It must be tied to authentic, effective functioning.  

Effective functioning involves an honest assessment of one’s competence, hard work, self-control, character, relationships, etc. It also involves learning to cope with normal stress and distress without becoming overwhelmed. This means that kids need to build up what I call emotional callouses. Disappointment, stress and frustration are all normal parts of everyday living. They are fine and essential to experience. Kids need to be very clear that they are not always going to be the best soccer player on the field, the most attractive kid in the grade, the smartest in the class. Oh well. There are bumps in the road and the failures and minor injuries to pride keeps us honest and authentic. That is life.

Helicopter parents who hover over every need or snow plow parents who carve the path for their kids are well-intentioned, but fundamentally misguided. The reason is that the subtle message of such actions is not lost on kids emotional systems: “You are fragile, the world is dangerous and if you aren’t protected, you will be damaged in a way you can’t cope.” When viewed in this light, it is not hard to see why so many efforts aimed at protecting self-esteem in the short term likely end up ultimately undermining it over the long haul. 

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There is an enormous literature on this topic, and many good analysis. One that I find myself in large agreement with is Alfie Kohn's The Truth About Self-Esteem.

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