Self-esteem is the most misunderstood and misused developmental factor of the past thirty years. Child-rearing experts in the early 1970s decided that all of the efforts of our society should be devoted to helping children build self-esteem. I couldn’t agree more. Children with high self-esteem have been found to perform better in school and sports, have better relationships, and have lower rates of problem behavior.
The Wrong Message About Self-Esteem
Unfortunately, these same experts told parents that the best way to develop self-esteem was to ensure that children always felt good about themselves. Parents were told to love and praise and reinforce and reward and encourage their children no matter what they did. Unfortunately, this approach created children who were selfish, spoiled, and entitled.
Parents were also led to believe that they had to be sure that their children never felt bad about themselves because it would hurt their self-esteem. So parents did everything they could to protect their children from anything that might create bad feelings. Parents didn’t scold their children when they misbehaved. Parents didn’t discipline their children when they didn’t give their best effort in school. In sum, parents didn’t hold their children accountable for their actions, particularly if they made mistakes or failed—“Gosh, that would just hurt my little one’s self-esteem!”
Schools and communities bought into this misguided attempt at building self-esteem by “protecting” children from feeling bad about themselves. For example, school grading systems were changed. I remember between sixth and seventh grade my middle school replaced F for failure with NI (Needs Improvement). God forbid I’d feel bad about myself for failing at something! Sports eliminated scoring, winners, and losers in the belief that losing would hurt children’s self-esteem. My four-year-old niece came home one day from a soccer tournament with a ribbon that said “#1-Winner” on it. When I asked her what she did to deserve such a wonderful prize, she said that everyone got one! Though Woody Allen once said that 90 percent of success is just showing up, it’s the last 10 percent—the part that requires hard work, discipline, patience, and perseverance—that true success is all about. Children are being led to believe that, like Woody Allen’s view, they can become successful and feel good about themselves just for showing up. But showing up is just not enough in today’s demanding society. By rewarding children just for showing up, they aren’t learning what it really takes to become successful and showing up definitely won’t build self-esteem.
The supposed benefit of this mentality is that children’s self-esteem is protected. If children aren’t responsible for all of the bad things that happen to them, then they can’t feel bad about themselves and their self-esteem won’t be hurt. This belief has been bolstered by the culture of victimization in which we live—“It’s not my fault, it’s not my kid’s fault. But someone has to be held responsible and we’re going to sue them.” In its poorly conceived attempt to protect children’s self-esteem, our society caused the very thing that it took such pains to prevent—children with low self-esteem, no sense of responsibility, and the emotional and behavioral problems that go with it.
Of course children need to feel loved and protected. This sense of security allows them to feel comfortable venturing out to explore their world. But we have gone way too far in protecting our children from life’s harsh realities. In fact, with this preoccupation with protecting our children, those so-called parenting experts neglected to tell parents about the other, equally important contributor to mature and healthy self-esteem.
The Missing Piece of Self-esteem
The second part of self-esteem that those parenting experts forgot to mention to parents is that children need to develop a sense of ownership of their actions, that their actions matter, that their actions have consequences; “If I do good things, good things happen, if I do bad things, bad things happen, and if I do nothing, nothing happens.” The antithesis of this approach is the spoiled child; whether they do good, bad, or nothing, they get what they want. Unfortunately, without this sense of ownership, children are thoroughly unprepared for the adulthood because in the real world our actions do have consequences.
This sense of ownership, and the self-esteem that accompanies it, is two sides of the same coin. If children don’t take ownership of their mistakes and failures, they can’t have ownership of their successes and achievements. And without that ownership, children can’t ever really feel good about themselves or experience the meaning, satisfaction, and joy of owning their efforts. Also, without the willingness to take ownership, children are truly victims; they’re powerless to change the bad things that might happen to them. With a sense of ownership, children learn that when things are not going well, they have the power to make changes in their lives for the better.
The goal is to raise children with both components of real self-esteem, in which they not only feel loved and valued, but also have that highly developed sense of ownership. Yes, they’re going to feel bad when they make mistakes and fail. But you want your children to feel bad when they screw up! How else are they going to learn what not to do and what they need to do to do better in the future? But, contrary to popular belief, these experiences will build, not hurt, their self-esteem. By allowing them to take ownership of their lives—achievements and missteps alike—your children gain the ability to change the bad experiences, and create and savor the good experiences.
Developing Real Self-esteem
Your challenge is to help your children understand how self-esteem develops. Much of your parenting should be devoted to helping your children develop this healthy self-esteem rather than the false self-esteem that is epidemic in our society. You must allow your children to experience this connection—both success and failure—in all areas of their lives, including school, sports, the performing arts, relationships, family responsibilities, and other activities. Your children’s essential need to have these experiences will require you to eschew the culture of victimization that pervades modern society. You must give your children the opportunity to develop real self-esteem so they can fully experience all aspects of life, including the failures and disappointments as well as the accomplishments and joys.
Recommendations for Building Self-esteem
- Love them regardless of how they perform.
- Give them opportunities to demonstrate their competence.
- Focus on areas over which they have control (e.g., their efforts rather than results).
- Encourage your children to take appropriate risks.
- Allow your children to experience failure and then help them learn its essential lessons.
- Set expectations for their behavior.
- Demand accountability.
- Have consequences for bad behavior.
- Include them in decision making.