Parental Self-Esteem

Any parent seeking the latest research about raising a psychologically healthy child might well be risking his or her own psychological health – or at the least finding herself in a state of confusion.  No sooner is one set of guidelines proclaimed when another contradictory set appears to challenge the first.

A body of thought given much currency in recent days is that parents are guilty both  of driving children relentlessly toward academic success while at the same time over-indulging them in other ways.  The thinking has been that children are praised and rewarded without regard to real achievement on their part – such as trophies just for playing, rather than for winning or for outstanding play.

Author Alfie Kohn, in an article derived from his book The Myth of the Spoiled Child , portrays those who believe in such a thesis as assuming that the best way to get children ready for the miserable “real world” that awaits them is to make sure that they have plenty of miserable experiences while they are young.  He even equates such thinking with the justification for children having to deal on their own with bullying.  

Kohn believes that such thinking is based on three values: kids shouldn’t be spared struggle and sacrifice; excellence is something that not everyone can attain, and only a few should get A’s – to have high standards there must always be losers.  Finally, there is a belief in conditionality: children should never receive anything desirable unless they’ve done enough to merit it.

There is nothing like setting up a straw man in order to knock it down.  While much has been written lately about the downside of trophies and awards handed out with little regard for real achievement, the rest of the argument seems vastly overstated.  Without attempting to speak for those who have expressed such a point of view, it would seem that the point really being made is that awards without merit hold little value, even to the children who receive them.

There are differing points of view about the value of competition and whether or not to purposefully put children in competitive situations such as sports.  However, if competition is the objective there are always going to be winners and losers, outstanding play and ordinary play.  There is a contradiction in promoting competition and then denying it by not accurately reflecting its results.  Children grasp this contradiction even when adults pretend it doesn’t exist.

When it comes to the point that the best way to make children ready for the real world is to make sure they have plenty of “miserable experiences” when they are young, this seems to be hyperbole at best.  I have never encountered any writing that espouses intentionally setting out to make sure that children have miserable experiences when they are young.

In my own work and writing, I have expressed the empathy I feel with parents’ wish to be able to protect children from many real but painful things in life.  This is an unrealistic goal, particularly since attempts to accomplish that often result in even more difficulty for children.  The death of loved ones and traumatic world or neighborhood events have an impact on parents as well as others in a child’s orbit.  Children feel the emotional ripples which become even more upsetting when they are not explained to children at a level and in language they will understand.

It is a far cry from inflicting “miserable experiences” on children to say that real things that are unhappy or unpleasant occur in children’s lives.  As parents, we can help them process these things in a way that they can deal with.  And it is true that finding that you are able to master difficulties is strength producing – more so than perceiving the idea that you are so fragile that you must be protected.  At the same time we try not to expose children needlessly to matters that are beyond their developmental level to comprehend.

Kohn refers to other research showing that when children feel their parents’ affection is contingent on their behavior or achievement this promotes the development of a fragile or unstable sense of self.  While still other researchers have shown that while high self-esteem is beneficial, even more desirable is unconditional self-esteem.  This means a belief in oneself and a belief that you are competent and worthwhile.  Turning back to trophies, the author’s view is that it is the unconditionality that has been attacked that actually is a defining feature of psychological health.   

All of which points to the fact that trying to raise children in accordance with the latest research findings can only lead you down the garden path. Apart from the question of the validity of any given research finding, more relevant for any individual parent is the question of how any set of prescriptions or recommendations relate to oneself or one’s child. 

What carries the most weight in influencing children is authenticity: not pretending to be someone you are not or that your child is someone other than he or she is.   Ultimately, parental self-esteem is the most significant ingredient.  Believing in yourself as a parent enables you to show belief in your child – your understanding of both his strengths and the weaknesses that need your support.  Research should bolster parents’ self-esteem rather than demonstrate that what they are doing is wrong.