Self esteem? What’s that?

I was at a parenting seminar on discipline, and I promised to share some of what I learned there. I’ll write up a post soon about some of the great ideas I came away with for creative discipline, but in the meantime I’ve had this on my mind. It’s been about a week, so I’ve had some time to process it. One of the major topics was ‘self esteem.’ Not so much how to build self esteem, but simply the fact that we’ve been deluded into thinking that good parenting means building self esteem in children, and worse – that self esteem is built by positive talk. Self esteem isn’t what makes a child happy and successful. It doesn’t build them into good adults and contributing citizens. Great self esteem builds egotists and people who think too highly of themselves. It gives a skewed sense of reality. What we should focus on – according to the seminar – is building Responsibility, Respect, and Resourcefulness. And that’s a very different issue.

I think one of the things that bothers me about a lot of schools today is the awards they give and the attitude that everyone is a winner. You can get trophies in some places for good attendance. Not perfect attendance, but just ‘good’ attendance. A trophy. And honestly, I don’t know that positive self esteem is a good thing. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should teach our children to think poorly of themselves, but guiding their thought processes simply to think highly of themselves seems misguided. I think we should look to a couple of things related to self esteem – confidence and self-understanding.

Miriam-Webster defines confidence this way:

1 a : a feeling or consciousness of one’s powers or of reliance on one’s circumstances b : faith or belief that one will act in a right, proper, or effective way.

Too frequently we try to give our children confidence by telling them how good they are or how well they performed. I, on the other hand, have a great deal of confidence but I was raised by parents who didn’t hesitate to point out my faults, and rarely spoke very positively of me. They built confidence in me by giving me difficult, yet manageable tasks to perform. And letting me fail and then figure it out. For example, when I was 6 I wanted a milkshake from whatever fast-food joint we were in. Now, you have to understand, I was a very short 6-year old. So my mom sent me with a dollar bill up to the counter. People nearly trampled me. I wasn’t assertive. I couldn’t see over the counter. No one realized I was in line. So I stood there for ages as adults pushed their way in front of me. Finally, I stood up for myself, went up to the counter, raised my hand to get the attention of the cashier, and barely able to see her peering down at me, I ordered my shake and paid for it. That built more confidence than any words could have.

Telling your kids they’re good at everything does nothing for them, long-term. It’s more important to help them know themselves – their strengths and weaknesses. I’m not proposing that you tell your kids all their faults. But at least help them to understand who they are. For instance, is there anything wrong with pointing out to a grade-schooler that he shows great compassion, but really needs to learn how to forgive others?  Or that he learns better with his eyes than his ears (visual as opposed to auditory)? I think one of the biggest struggles as we move from childhood into adulthood is figuring out who we are. We get to college and have to pick a major – but most of us get to college with very little idea of what we excel at or what we want to do. Take the example of someone who has little compassion but wants to be a nurse. Sure, he or she could probably learn and eventually become a decent nurse. But maybe if that person understood who she is, she’d have realized that she’d be a better hospital administrator than a nurse.

Parenting isn’t about telling my kids that every painting they paint is beautiful. It’s noticing the details. It’s seeing that Bean chose only to paint one corner of the picture, and learning why.  It’s hearing that when she doesn’t want to come to the table it’s because she’s in the middle of the book, and she. can’t. stop. in. the. middle.  And getting her through that.

I don’t know what this fuzzy self-esteem thing is. But I do know that it’s a whole industry now, full of self-help books, speakers, seminars, and the same people who spend their every moment chasing after it often end up sorely disappointed. Teaching a child that she’s the best at everything she attempts is misleading. One day she’ll see reality. Isn’t it better if her parents clue her in to what the reality is, in a loving and accepting place?


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