Jewish World Review Dec. 2, 2002 / 27 Kislev, 5763
First self-esteem, then delinquency
Nowhere is this more evident than in what I call the "parenting" culture, the canon of socially correct instruction on parenting.
"Helping your child grow up with strong self-esteem is the most important task of parenthood" say the experts on one parenting Web site. The authors of "Just Because I Am: A Child's Book of Affirmation," write, "nothing is as important as self-esteem to a child's well-being and success."
Self-esteem the "most important" task of parenthood? "Nothing else" as important? What about raising children who are compassionate and who esteem others? Hmm. Somehow "other-esteem" doesn't seem to have caught on in the "parenting" culture.
Maybe that's because we love to love ourselves. So our lovely little ones should love themselves, too.
The authors of "Just Because I Am" list 50 ways for kids to take care of themselves, like "get a hug," "give yourself a hug," "be angry when you need to be," and "Celebrate You!" As Sykes points out, on the list of 50 there are a grand total of two entries that have anything to do with anyone else.
It's no wonder I haven't felt good about the self-esteem movement for a long time.
I have four little kids who know they are loved by their dad and me totally and unconditionally. But recent studies confirm what I've long suspected: Too much feeling good about oneself can create narcissistic, arrogant, even dangerous people.
The New York Times recently reported that psychologists have found that "D" students "think as highly of themselves as valedictorians, and serial rapists are no more likely to ooze with insecurities than doctors or bank managers."
Dr. Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University and Brad Bushman of Iowa State University have been doing research on self-esteem for years.
They wrote in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that "aggressive people form one subset of people with highly favorable, even inflated opinions of themselves." Baumeister and Bushman found that people who had unrealistically high self-esteem were more likely to become aggressive when they were criticized, but that was not true of their peers with lower self-esteem.
The Times reported on one review of studies by Dr. Nicholas Emler of the London School of Economics who found "no clear link between low self-esteem and delinquency, violence against others, smoking," or many other pathologies. High self-esteem, however, has been shown to be "positively correlated with racist attitudes, drunken driving, and other risky behaviors." It's even the case that students with high self-esteem were the most likely to explain away or excuse their failures.
Still our culture is devoted to the cult of self-esteem - to telling our kids that they are always tremendously terrific no matter what, to giving trophies to every child in the game so no one feels bad, to having little ones make lists of "the many wonderful things about me." Worst of all, the "parenting" culture insists we should never ask a child to feel bad about himself - even if he should feel bad about himself.
The new information on self-esteem may not do much to convince the culture, especially the "parenting" culture to change its ways. Still, Sykes argues, a much better alternative to building "self-esteem" is building self-confidence. He writes, "Rather than beginning with the child's obsession with himself and his feelings, confidence begins with effort and grows by overcoming challenges."
I feel good about that.
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