Raising children is a hard endeavor. As it is, parents are constantly juggling to ensure their children get the proper education, are fed adequately, are clothed appropriately. As children keep growing, so does the list of things to do for them as a parent. With age and maturity, they become more cognizant of behaviors and how to approach others and the impact of others on their self-esteem. The thing with self-esteem is, as it turns out, that it is not something that comes overtime, but something that is learnt and taught from a very early age.
In fact, in psychology, the study of self-esteem is a highly debated topic. Who teaches children self-esteem? When does it start? How much self-esteem is good self-esteem until it becomes over-arrogance? How is it taught to children?
In this article, we are looking at a theme which is raised in the book “One Nation Under Therapy”: are your efforts to raise your child’s self-esteem putting them at risk of anti-social or criminal behavior? The writers of the book state the following on self-esteem: “Those who encourage children to ‘feel good about themselves’ may be cheating them, unwittingly, out of becoming the kind of conscientious, humane and enlightened people Mill had in mind”. Some of the points which we would like to explore based on the question are the following:
- Is there data that verifies the link between self-esteem and success?
- Are there successful people with low self-esteem and unsuccessful people or criminals with high self esteem?
- There is a growing trend in parents interceding on behalf of their children when teachers hold students accountable for their actions. What damage does this to do the child in a real-world situation when parents aren’t present?
Self-esteem, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a confidence and satisfaction in oneself: self-respect”. The level of self-esteem one has determines the level of self-regard they have for themselves. The higher your self-esteem, the more you know your worth and the more you are likely to fight the injustices thrown your way. But where does self-esteem stop and where does the feeling of entitlement begin? Is it true that those with too much self-esteem tend to have a sense of entitlement and are unable to learn from their failures?
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In an article published in Harvard Business Review, research suggests that high self-esteem actually does not predict high performance or great success. This is quite troubling especially considering that children at an early age have it constantly drilled into their brains that to succeed, one must be confident, and to be confident, one must have high self-esteem. Studies suggest that self-compassion, and not self-esteem, can lead one to remarkable success in life.
In fact, it is not self-esteem that leads you to success, but success which leads you to higher self-esteem. In our society, having a good paying and reputable job, being happily married and have a family, supportive friends all equate to being successful. The more items you have check marked on the list of what success looks like according to the societal norms, the more likely that your self-esteem will raise.
The study further indicates that high self-esteem does not prevent a child from smoking, drinking, doing drugs, having sex at an early age. Quoted as follow: “If anything, high self-esteem fosters experimentation, which may increase early sexual activity or drinking, but in general effects of self-esteem are negligible.” One can argue that too much self-esteem can lead children astray as they grow older because they get a wrong sense of entitlement and confidence.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t be teaching our children to not have any self-respect or confidence to take on the challenges of life. We should be teaching our offspring that along with self-esteem, it is important to have self-compassion. Self-compassion will ensure that young children understand and accept their own shortcomings with kindness and an open heart. This in turn teaches them to become compassionate to the plight of others who are suffering or are in pain.
Another very interesting study suggests that too much praise to raise your child’s self-esteem plummets it instead of actually raising it. Children who are constantly praised, especially when the action is disproportionate to the praise, they may develop lower self-esteem and even narcissism. Both are equally damaging. A child with low self-esteem may turn out to be less social and a child with narcissistic tendencies may turn out to be ok with hurting others (whether physically or emotionally) as long as they are accomplishing in their fields or lives.
This study recommends that parents, au lieu of constantly praising their children, should encourage their curiosity and their hard work. Furthermore, a child’s self-esteem will always remain stable if they are part of loving and warm relationships with their parents. Too much praising leaves them in a constant fear of not wanting to disappoint their parents and thus, putting too much or no pressure at all on themselves.
Research at large, however, remains split. Some show that children who have less self-esteem, albeit the reasoning behind why they have low self-esteem may be different from child to child, they are more likely to join gangs as they age. It is through violence that they increase their self-worth and declare their independence from the adult figure in their life. Others suggest that it is children with high self-esteem that are more likely to be violent. This is because children with high self-esteem are more likely to become violent or engage in criminal behavior to defend the image they have built for themselves.
Research in general remains in the middle ground: high self-esteem is a characteristic that can be found in both highly aggressive individuals and in those who are not aggressive at all. One study puts it well: the evidence best fits the view that aggression is most likely when people with a narcissistic inflated view of their own personal superiority encounter someone who explicitly disputes that opinion.
Where does it then leave parents who intercede on behalf of their children when teachers hold students accountable for their actions? What is the damage caused to that student when their parents are not around to defend them in other real-world situations? Well, studies show that in those cases, most parents are setting their children up for failure.
These children grow up to be risk averse, not confident enough to make their own decisions, unable to voice their opinions, and less successful in general compared to children whose parents allow them to stand up for themselves at an early age and letting them to make small impact decisions on their own.
As they grow older, they are more sheltered and do not have adequate experiences in order to deal with the hardships that life may throw at them. There are a couple of problems with growing up with over protective parents: children feel a sense of entitlement, are easily targeted for bullying because they don’t have social skills to correspond with their peers, throw misfits in the face of retaliation, lack maturity and have co-dependency issues.
Science shows that some form of acute stress is good for children’s brain and personality development. A theme which is common with children whose parents were strict and overprotective is the lack of self-discipline and responsibility on the child’s part.
Because their parents have always interceded on their behalf with their teachers and peers, they lack the opportunity to develop skills that help them with discipline and the role of responsibility. These children, as they age, may also engage in rebellious acts since their parents did not give them the appropriate space to express their individuality.
Overall, the one thing we have established through our research on self-esteem is that too much or too less of it can be damaging. It is good for children to develop strong self-regard; however, parents must be careful in not going over board with praises as it may actually do the opposite of what they intended for.
Children who develop very high self-esteem may develop narcissism which has shown through research to be closely associated with violence and criminal behaviours in children going into their youth. Self-compassion is an equally important quality to teach our children so they become less aggressive and more kind when faced with challenges or adversity in life.