In recent years, research has been cited as the basis of criticisms that young people are part of a “me” generation, focused on self-esteem – bordering on narcissism – as necessary for success. The label “narcissism” is applied quite loosely these days, quite often in ways that are far afield from its true meaning. And making self-esteem a culprit of sorts has also been turning up regularly, including the complaint of the tiger mother that American parents are too concerned about self-esteem. The underlying theme is that parents are responsible for the emergence of characteristics and behavior of children not to our liking.
Many of these criticisms seem to miss the true meaning of self-esteem. First of all, every child is “special” to his or her parents, and that feeling reflected back to children is very valuable – providing nourishment, almost like vitamins, that can be growth producing. That is a different matter than the issue of praise that may be meaningless. Hearing “good job” about everything he does is not what leads to a child’s self-esteem. On the contrary, children are pretty good appraisers of the relative worth of their achievements, which often do not reach their own goals. Praise in such cases often seems worthless, or at times may suggest to them that whatever they have done is the best they can do.
Children in today’s world face very high expectations. Competition for quality education is great, which leads to stressful competition for academic achievement. Constant comparisons are made of children’s standing relative to others, and more children are exposed to negative rather than positive comparisons. The educational system values a certain kind of success, which leads in turn to a similar evaluation by parents. Too often, children are unable to derive feelings of self-worth from the things they do well or are good at.
The pressure children feel to be “successful” can lead them to think they should know things before having learned them. In a strange way, what can look like self-esteem may be a child’s inflated idea of what he is supposed to be able to do or know. It is the belief that one should be at a certain destination without having taken the steps to get there. What is missing is the process of taking those individual steps along the way, which seems to be the case for many children today. This would seem not to be a result of praise, but rather the pressure to have reached the goal.
Parents always want something better for their children, and have an understandable wish to protect their children from harsh realities. These dual wishes can lead to contradictory expectations: expecting too much in some areas, too little in others. Setting appropriate expectations for our children is one of the most challenging aspects of child-rearing. The challenge is to try to know their true capabilities without over-or under-estimating them, in order to stay a little ahead of where our children are in our expectations.
Praise can be meaningful when given for steps taken in meeting a goal, as long as the steps are not confused with the end result. This is true whether the goal is dressing oneself or riding a bike. There are going to be failures in the process of learning and children need help in recognizing that fact, while given the encouragement and help when needed to keep trying. The same is true for parents setting goals for their children.
Self-esteem means first knowing the self. For parents that means knowing the child and then helping him know himself.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.
Dr. Elaine Heffner: The self in self-esteem