The Self In Self-Esteem

A familiar saying about various observations people make is “not seeing the forest for the trees.”  This usually means a failure to see the big picture because of a focus on individual parts.  But the reverse can also be true when a conclusion about the big picture obscures its individual parts.  At times this seems to be the case with research findings. Generalizations drawn from various studies can benefit from a closer look at their component parts.

Along these lines is a discussion in the N.Y. Times’ Science Times of the work of Dr. Jean Twenge, a psychologist whose cross-generational studies have led her to conclude that younger generations are increasingly entitled, self-obsessed, and unprepared for the realities of adult life.  According to the Times, she assigns blame to an American culture of self-esteem, and parents (of course) “who praise every child as ‘special’, and feelings of self-worth are considered a prerequisite to success, rather than a result of it.”  She further concludes that young people connecting success with belief in self goes all the way to being narcissistic.

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. 

Without going into an analysis of this particular study and its critics, one thought that arises is that there seems to be a misuse of 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.

The connections made between praise, self-esteem and success may reflect a reaction in child-rearing to earlier generations, when children were criticized and scolded rather than praised and admired.  Many adults attribute their own lack of self-worth to that kind of childhood experience and want something different for their own children.  Much criticism of the work world is the lack of positive feedback afforded employees, and the fact that feelings of self-worth are not often enough derived from work.

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.

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