(VIDEO) Fostering Self-Esteem in Our Children: But There's Nothing Worse Than Being Told You Did a Good Job When You Haven't

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Northern lights

Yesterday, my fifth grader threw what really can only be called a temper tantrum. He had been trying to write a persuasive essay, his homework for the weekend. Unlike the other kids who had chosen topics such as “Why Hot Dogs are Better Than Hamburgers” and “Why the Celtics Should Win the Championship,” my son had decided to take on poverty in Africa. He was arguing for greater independence by the African nations and less reliance on foreign aid. Yeah. So when he found it just a little harder than he expected, he became frustrated, burst into tears, and gave up.

According to the newest trend in child rearing, experts would tell me my son lacks perseverance, evidence of low-self-esteem and bad parenting.

Self-esteem; such an ephemeral concept, the northern lights of our personality. It exists, we know it does, but it is certainly not ever-present as we go about our day worrying of our jobs, our weight, our relationships. And yet, parenting in America is obsessed with fostering self-esteem, as though, like opening a lock -- two turns here, one turn there -- the lights will shine. In my experience, it isn’t as easy as that.

When my children were younger, I spent much time validating them. From what I said (“What a beautiful singing voice you have,” “You really know how to kick that soccer ball,” “I love when you help me in the kitchen”) to what I did (hanging their stick figure art on the walls, clapping for their non-speaking role in the school play, cheering when they swung at the t-ball), my parenting was focused on helping them feel good about themselves. Now I discover, thanks to my excessive enthusiasm, I may have created monsters of overconfidence who are destined for underperformance.

For years, we have been taught to nurture our children’s self-esteem. Programs for schools and a multitude of NGOs have sprung up to reinforce parents’ efforts. Together, we have come to believe we will inoculate the next generation from any number of ills -- drug use, sex, bad grades -- and ensure their successful futures -- hello Harvard. Early leaders in the self-esteem movement argued that “virtually every problem can be traced to people’s lack of self-love” from “anxiety to depression, to fear of intimacy or of success, to spouse battery or child molestation.”

But recent research argues that perhaps things have gone just a little too far. Americans now rate themselves high on measures tracking self-esteem, but teachers often complain of students who are unwilling to work hard, who argue with assignments, and who are satisfied with mediocre work. In fact, as levels of self-esteem have increased over the past few decades, academic performance has decreased concurrently. Additionally, in the past fifteen years overall, drug use by high school seniors has hovered around 40 percent and use of marijuana and prescriptions drugs is on the rise. So much for all that self-esteem.

“What gives?” I asked my daughter who, by all accounts, does not lack for self-esteem.

“Well,” she said, “when you’re younger, you want your mom to think everything you do is just great. But when you get older, you want be told you did a good job on something you really did a good job on. There is nothing worse than being told you’ve done a good job when you know you haven’t.”

And therein lies the problem, according to Stanford professor Carol Dweck and others who advocate for restraint. “Praise,” according to Dweck, “if not handled properly, can become a negative force, a kind of drug that, rather than strengthening students, makes them passive and dependent on the opinion of others.”

Dweck’s research has shown that individuals who have been praised for their raw “talent,” such as intelligence, tend to believe that they should understand subjects intrinsically. When they don’t, they give up and even lie to maintain their self-image as someone preternaturally smart (see Malcom Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker for a fascinating take on how this plays out in adulthood). Po Bronson, author of the recently published NutureShock, writes that research tells when we praise effort not talent, we will actually alter our children’s brains giving them the real code to those illusive northern lights.

This morning, I found my son at the computer working on his essay. I hugged him and told him I admired his decision to choose a topic that was hard, one in which there were no easy answers. I encouraged him to keep at it. I also told him that, like parenting, all you could do was to give it your best shot. “It’s just an essay, Mom,” he said as he rolled his eyes and then turned back to the screen.

Blogger Sheila Easton begs to differ with the experts. She writes: “You can never have too much self-esteem and self-confidence." Liza Weimer writes about teens, self-esteem, and misbehavior in her blog. Toni Vitanza keeps a list of the “ten things I like about you” for her teenage son, because she still feels he needs to hear it.

What do you do to foster your children’s self-esteem? How do you avoid "monsters of overconfidence?"

Gloria Steinem once said, "The first problem for all of us, women and men, is not to learn but to unlearn." I am working on unlearning each and every day. How about you?




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