Controversy Wednesday: SELF-ESTEEM

13 Jul

We missed our flight.  It’s a long story that involves me never looking up what time our flight left and a hefty fee of $231.00.

Lou Brooks

So anyway, we’re still in Idaho until this afternoon.  With a little bit of time to kill, I read an article in The Atlantic recommended by a friend of mine.  It’s called “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy: Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods,” by Lori Gottlieb.  It’s all about how kids with parents intent on their children’s happiness still become jacked up adults.  On a day like today, when I have already erred royally, it is particularly germaine.

If you don’t have time to read the article, watch this short video featuring the author.  But if you do have time to read the full article, you won’t be sorry.  I especially enjoyed reading all of the comments from readers.  Whoa, nelly!  As you may imagine, when someone denounces the power of the ever popular self-esteem movement, there’s gonna be blood.

From the article:

A few months ago, I called up Jean Twenge, a co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic and professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has written extensively about narcissism and self-esteem. She told me she wasn’t surprised that some of my patients reported having very happy childhoods but felt dissatisfied and lost as adults. When ego-boosting parents exclaim “Great job!” not just the first time a young child puts on his shoes but every single morning he does this, the child learns to feel that everything he does is special. Likewise, if the kid participates in activities where he gets stickers for “good tries,” he never gets negative feedback on his performance. (All failures are reframed as “good tries.”) According to Twenge, indicators of self-esteem have risen consistently since the 1980s among middle-school, high-school, and college students. But, she says, what starts off as healthy self-esteem can quickly morph into an inflated view of oneself—a self-absorption and sense of entitlement that looks a lot like narcissism. In fact, rates of narcissism among college students have increased right along with self-esteem.

Meanwhile, rates of anxiety and depression have also risen in tandem with self-esteem. Why is this? “Narcissists are happy when they’re younger, because they’re the center of the universe,” Twenge explains. “Their parents act like their servants, shuttling them to any activity they choose and catering to their every desire. Parents are constantly telling their children how special and talented they are. This gives them an inflated view of their specialness compared to other human beings. Instead of feeling good about themselves, they feel better than everyone else.”

I find all of this fascinating in lieu of all my recent praise of Seabass for walking, talking, signing, and generally being freaking adorable.  It’s also fascinating because, *ahem,* this article is describing me and a lot of my friends.  I mean absolutely no disrespect to my parents – they were loving and supportive and superb disciplinarians – but I believe I am a victim of the “narcissism epidemic.”  And look!  I have the therapy sessions to prove it.

Enough outta me.  What do you think?  Do you believe that happiness is the key to life for your children?  Are you willing to do anything to ensure their happiness?  Are you child-centered or parent-centered?  And how do you think we can avoid raising another generation of narcissists? 

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13 Responses to “Controversy Wednesday: SELF-ESTEEM”

  1. Kat July 13, 2011 at 11:34 am #

    This is something my husband and I have talked a lot about particularly regarding my little brother’s baseball teams. They decided not to keep score anymore in farm league (one step up from t-ball) because it was too hard on the kids. But then came the tournament and those kids ran faster, hit harder and were more focused than ever before! Granted, there were a few tears when they lost the championship game, but they were quickly dried when the cupcakes appeared and pizza was promised. I think kids are a lot tougher than we give them credit for sometimes!

    • Caroline July 14, 2011 at 4:32 am #

      I hope you don’t find my reply to be combative (as I think I’m agreeing with you), but I really dislike the kind of coddling of children that resorts to erasing basic ways of the world (like scorekeeping) from children’s lives. The Western world relies on scorekeeping for most everything. Kids need to learn how to accept defeat – sure, maybe not at 3 years old, but I would think by the time they’re playing t-ball.

  2. N'sMomma July 13, 2011 at 11:39 am #

    As usual, great topic! And funny enough I JUST had a conversation about this on Sunday. Not only are my husband and I constantly praising my son for his very existence but be me being the youngest out of seven kids he has, my 6 siblings, my 9 nieces and nephews (who are all older and think he’s a doll!) as well as he’s the first grandchild on my husbands Portuguese side soooooo there’s about another 160 people that are constantly telling him how amazing and awesome and adorable and perfect he is. I worry I’m setting him up to be a bratty self-centered little monster.

    As he’s just turned one and I feel he might actually understand me a little more I have started doing things like this… When he started walking he didn’t want anyone’s help in the task. It must be all his own doing but when he’d fall of course he’d cry and be frustrated. I’d praise him for his efforts and say something like “good try, you must be frustrated that it’s so hard. Time to get up and try again”. A sentence like that still enforces the positive (which leads to good teenage self esteem) as well as acknowledges the emotion behind it (helping him to learn to recognize and eventually communicate emotions) and finally a firm get up and do it again. No one else is going to do it for you! Which in a baby world starts preparing them for harsh realities of life.

    So there’s my take on that. Could it be totally useless and wasted efforts/information and time for everyone? Possible. I’m by no means an expert but that’s the best I can do for me and my boy 🙂

    Keep up the great articles.

  3. Jen July 13, 2011 at 11:44 am #

    I haven’t read the article yet (though I am planning to, this is a hot button topic for me!), and I’m not a mother, but as a teacher, my nutshell advice is: let them fail (i.e., don’t step in too quickly) and don’t insist on an “A for effort.” It is not the end of the world if your child gets a D on a report in sixth grade. Really, it isn’t. Over the years, he’ll learn how to improve that score or he’ll learn that subject isn’t what he’s best at or both.

    It is absolutely NOT true that you “can be whatever you want to be,” as the mantra of many a parent goes. Everyone is good at *something,* but not everyone is good at *everything.* And I think the sooner kids learn that and follow the “way in which they should go” (to paraphrase and slightly lift out of context a well-known Proverb), the better off they’ll be.

    That doesn’t mean you should be satisfied with mediocrity, but you do have to acknowledge your mediocrity. As an example: I am not, never have been, and never will be a stellar athlete.I’m barely a bad athlete. When I tried out for the volleyball team in junior high, my dad (a star v-ball player) coached me, encouraged me, and pushed me. But he never once told me I could be a star because what I was showing him on the court did not indicate that at all, and when I sat on the bench most of the season, he never railed about how unfair the coach was being. On the other hand, my brother is a great athlete, and he was told he could be a top player because he could be was.

    We don’t need rigorous scientific studies to show us what the self-esteem movement has wrought (though I’m glad they exist). We only have to look to American Idol tryouts to see the damage.

    • Jen July 13, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

      Wow, that was typo- and error-riddled! That’s what I get for rushing. 😉

  4. Kacey July 13, 2011 at 11:56 am #

    My mantra – let them fall then give them a hug when they get back up. The pendulum will swing as it will and hopefully we, as parents, will know that a nice resting place in the middle of moderation is the best spot to be. In the end, I hope we can all say, “yep, I loved my spouse + children, I was a kind person and I lived a good life.”

  5. Megan Stiles July 13, 2011 at 12:02 pm #

    yes, when you do that, that’s what happens. Where was this info 23 years ago? Oh, yes, it was in the middle of the bounce-back from the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ era. Somewhere in the middle is where we need to get. But the middle keeps changing. So my mantra is ‘I do the best I can with what I have’ and hope that they don’t hate me later.

  6. shotwellwallace July 13, 2011 at 1:15 pm #

    i read the book ‘nurture shock,’ which i think has some similar themes. basically it says that when you tell your kid they’re smart all the time (i.e. they put a puzzle together correctly and you respond with ‘good job! you’re so smart!’) or other nondescript forms of praise, they end up actually not trying as hard to succeed later in life at things that don’t come easily to them right from the beginning because they feel like they’re just not smart enough. instead it encourages parents to provide very specific praise (i.e. ‘you must have worked very hard at that puzzle, you should be proud of yourself’) in order to encourage hard work–a trait that’s much more in the kid’s control than straight-up intelligence. this provides them with self esteem and good feelings, without over-praising. i’m all in favor, and am trying my best not to fall back on ‘good job’ and ‘you’re so smart’ with my toddler. i, too, feel a bit lost these days and have been wondering if there might be a little bit of that overpraising in my own past.

  7. Kelly July 13, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    Ever heard of Amy Chua, the Tiger Mother? She wrote a fantastic book. The title is escaping me…… But it’s all about the idea of artificial praise being worthless, and being brutally honest with our children’s abilities as they grow up will ensure self-esteem and hard-work out of their future. 🙂 I try my darndest to hold my tongue when I want to say “Good Job!” and instead say something constructive, “You are really trying to draw a circle, my 2-year-old daughter, but your line isn’t re-connecting. Can we try again, and try to stop at the same point where we started?”

  8. Kim Fahrni July 13, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

    Beautifully said!! I have worked with special needs children for 9+ yrs. I can tell you that this applies across the board!! ALL children need to experience failure and sometimes the pain resulting in it. I truly believe that this is what makes a persons experiences rich and all the more special when you succeed. Thanks for bringing the subject up for discussion.

  9. Caroline July 14, 2011 at 4:46 am #

    Fascinating. Terrifying. I hate that I believe in this article. It’s making me question all of the praise and obsessive affection I give my 17 month old. I feel like I’m constantly compensating for feeling alone as a child by making my daughter believe I’m always there for her.

    I really related to the bit about the drama teacher in the video too. I used to be a drama teacher at a private school, where I felt there was far too much coddling of the kids all the way through high school, and there was something very unusually narcissistic about them. I was also big in the drama department when I was in K-12 myself. My school did NOT coddle the students. If you sucked, you didn’t get cast, but there was always the one show where they tried to cast everyone, so all kids got an opportunity to experience performing on stage. The school where I taught, however, was all about “don’t make the kids work too hard” and “give the kids a chance to play”.

    Good post, J. Sorry you missed your flight, but glad this link came out of it. 🙂

  10. Marta July 14, 2011 at 8:58 am #

    I haven’t read the article (yet), but I totally understand how all that self-esteem boosting would backfire in adulthood. After all when you’re an adult and out of the comfort of your own home people aren’t going to praise you for mediocrity, they may not even praise you when you do a good job and when you’re used to being told you’re wonderful ALL THE TIME, that would be a hard pill to swallow.

    Now, how do we teach our kids good self esteem just from knowing they did the best that they could and tried their hardest, without over inflating their egos?? Does anyone have an article on that!

  11. Cynthia July 14, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    I think Jen’s comment was right on: “It is absolutely NOT true that you “can be whatever you want to be,” as the mantra of many a parent goes.” It’s taken me many years of adulthood to realize that the true mantra we should be teaching our kids (and ourselves) is this: “You can work hard towards whatever goal you choose.”

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