Self Esteem Can Not be Counterfeit

Children's achievements

little kids playing AYSO soccer
little kids playing AYSO soccer

What exactly is "self esteem?"

"Self Esteem." I wince when I hear this word. So many people misunderstand it. So many studies that measure so-called "self esteem" are measuring nothing more than self-centeredness. So many programs to develop "self esteem" are nothing more than emotional bumpers to make sure nobody ever feels "bad" no matter what they do.

I am a believer in real self-esteem. Undoubtedly self-esteem is a good thing to have, but the kicker is that one has to earn one's own. Unlike objective wealth, we can not "give" our children self esteem by reducing it to mere tokens. We can provide an environment where self esteem can flourish, but we can not and must not short circuit our children's perceptions of their own worth.

We mustn't ruin their creativity!

(tongue in cheek!) Oh goodness Kevin what a creative way you arranged those potato chips!
(tongue in cheek!) Oh goodness Kevin what a creative way you arranged those potato chips!
Oh My what a GREAT JOB you guys are doing watching TV.  (real hard wasn't it?)
Oh My what a GREAT JOB you guys are doing watching TV. (real hard wasn't it?)
What a great job you did Toby (age 13) making sure there are no rats in your room!
What a great job you did Toby (age 13) making sure there are no rats in your room!

Examples that backfired

Before I go on, I'd like to show you three examples of attempts to artificially bolster self esteem that backfired:

Praise for the trivial:

Chuckie, (not his real name) is a problem ten-year old fifth grader who rarely does anything worthy of praise. Chuckie asks to be excused to go to the bathroom. He leaves and comes back redolent of the strong school soap. Teacher, desperate to find something to praise Chuckie for, catches a whiff and remarks what a great handwashing job Chuckie has done. Now Chuckie may be a behaviour problem, but he is not stupid. He knows that handwashing is a three-year-old skill. "Is that the only thing I can do right?" he thinks, and ends up feeling worse than ever.


My daughter at age five played on a little soccer team. At the end of the season, every player was given this huge medal, equal in quality and workmanship to my marathon medals, which I feel is are true achievements. Daughter shortly dumped this medal into the goodwill box.

"Don't you like your medal?"

"It's pretty, but everyone got one."

She was telling me in her simple direct five-year-old language that getting this medal did not make her feel special, hence it had no particular value to her. (I'm not against praising a team as a team, but if we give everybody a medal for just showing up, then how do we distinguish exceptional achievement?)

The reward always follows, whether I achieved anything or not, doesn't it?

Annie (not her real name) a six year old mentally challenged girl who is receiving speech therapy and has been doing so for three years, already has learned that "reinforcement" is what happens after she has done a drill. Since the mentally challenged typically love routine, they feel ill-at-ease if B does not follow A. Annie has been listless and making no effort to improve lately so her current therapist withholds the reinforcement. Annie looks uncomfortable. There is a pause. Then Annie gives a huge smile, says "Good!" and claps her hands. Everything feels right and complete to her now, but obviously she has missed the point completely.

The bank of self-esteem

You can't make deposits here, you only get to add appropriate INTEREST
You can't make deposits here, you only get to add appropriate INTEREST

Self Esteem is like a bank account

By way of analogy, let me liken self-esteem to interest that accrues in a bank account into which only the owner can make deposits. The owner has some sense of how much interest he is entitled to; well-meaning people's attempts to artificially pump it up are recognized instantly as bogus, and it makes the account owner disrespect the well-meaning person who is trying to give them something they know they are not entitled to.

Self esteem only comes about naturally when a person has achieved something and he or she knows it. How, then, can we increase our children's self-esteem? Is there nothing we can do to help? The answer, happily, is YES. We can provide an environment in which self-esteem can flourish. Carrying through with the banking analogy, we can provide a high rate of return on their investment in themselves. Would you deposit into a bank account where the interest was 0% or where the bank actually stole your money? No? Neither would I. This is the type of self-esteem shattering environment we provide to our children by ridiculing or belittling them and their achievements. On the other hand, if we dump too much "interest" into their accounts without them investing, we are defeating the very behaviour we are trying to encourage.

But just how much is my achievement worth?

The amount a person perceives as his "deposit" in his self-esteem account is based on his estimation of its value. Some people tend to underestimate the value of their achievements while others tend to overestimate. If you have to work six hours to achieve something you estimate is worth $0.25, you might question whether it's worth it or not. On the other hand, if you think what you did for the past six hours was worth $250, you will probably do it again, regardless of what compensation you actually receive for it. We can argue forever about whether it is environment, heredity, or hormones that causes over- and underestimation, but simply asking people to rate their achievements will give a fairly reliable measure of how valuable they perceive them to be.

Underestimaters are in the most danger of having low self-esteem. My husband's Ph.D dissertation on gender differences in math achievement identified "locus of control" as an issue. Underestimaters need approval--an outside locus of control-- to believe that what they are doing is important and valued. I, for example, started life as a chronic underestimater. For whatever reason, I felt that my younger brother's achievements were way more important that anything I ever did, even though, looking back, I was actually the one who followed through and got things finished. I would have benefitted by being made to feel more valued and important.

Overestimaters, on the other hand, value their achievements and themselves as judges of what is a worthy achievement, sometimes excessively. They need a reality check, but luckily, the natural competition inherent in life usually provides this. Little Johny may feel pretty hot about his done-deal goal and ignore or belittle little Jimmy who provided the miracle set up. When little Jimmy switches to goalie, suddenly little Johny isn't scoring so much. He'll figure it out eventually, unless someone, in a misguided effort to never let him feel bad, artificially pumps him up and lets him get away with excuses for his slump.

What's good for the goose is not always good for the gander.

The point is that some kids need a little inflation and some need a little deflation. The self-esteem movement in the school system today just artificially inflates everybody across the board. What might be necessary encouragement and nurturing to one individual just teaches another that mediocre work pays off just as much as good work. When (if ever) such an individual get the reality check he so richly deserves, he will see the phoniness of artificial inflation and will not thank the teachers, parents, and all the other well-meaning people who provided it.

How I nurtured self esteem with my kids

We learn from the models that worked for us. The most genuine self-esteem in my young life was nurtured by my piano teacher and I modeled my child rearing strategy on what she did with me. No matter how well I played, she always had something to say about how I could make it better. My goal in life was just to make her shut the hell up! I could tell I was improving when it took her longer to scrape up something to say. She knew too: she'd say with a wink, "It's getting harder for me to find something to critique but don't worry, I'll think of something!" That kept the humor in it, and also let me know that she cared about me and we were just making a game of it. There was nothing personal in any of it. And when she finally had nothing to say, she would suddenly and spontaneously take me out to the taco stand near her studio and buy me a taco. Let me tell you those tacos were few and far between and they were THE MOST DELICIOUS TACOS of my life because I knew I had earned every last sliver of that shredded lettuce.

How I nurtured self-esteem with my kids

My kids understood that I wasn't one of those moms who just gush on and on whenever they complete a homework or play a little tune or whatever. I never attached a value judgement of "bad" to anything they have did, but if it was not up to snuff I asked them how long they worked on it, or how hard they tried, and what they thought of their project/piece (or whatever.) Usually they had a pretty accurate perception of how "good" it was themselves. Once they had verbalized their own self-ratings, 3 out of the 4 of them took the hint to go off and improve it right away.

If they seemed overly pleased with themselves, that's when I pulled out the guns and suggested areas where they could improve. I always made sure to start with a positive:

"Mom, done with my essay, can I play on the computer now?"

"Son, that's a great topic sentence about germ warfare, but do you really think you have covered the whole topic in two sentences?"

Praise was never a given. It isn't in the real world. So when I did praise them, it meant something.

To cap: Self esteem can be nurtured or starved, but it can not be bought, sold, given, or bartered, and individuals have varying needs.

Colleen Dick has more or less successfully raised four children while being a techie and a musician herself.

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Comments 9 comments

02SmithA profile image

02SmithA 8 years ago from Ohio

Very nice hub! I love the point you make about not being a mom who gushes on and on about one little piece of homework done. I think that can be a real problem that a lot of parents have, it just gets the kids in the wrong frame of mind and then they expect it. Thumbs up.

marisuewrites profile image

marisuewrites 8 years ago from USA

I love this info! As a foster parent to dozens and dozens over the last many years, praise is something the kids were not used to, however, they could spot "fake" immediately. praising "effort" is normally a safe choice, but only if the effort is worthy of the praise.

you are hitting the nail on the head with your hub!! =)) thumbs up!

hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 8 years ago from Oregon, USA Author

Thank you marisue and the praise is meaningful indeed coming from someone who has fostered 250 or so kids (as I recall from your bio.) I wrote this article a while ago, and I think that the whole craze to praise has abated a little since that but every craze leaves behind a few diehards.

Denmarkguy profile image

Denmarkguy 8 years ago from Port Townsend

Very nice article!

For a moment, I was reminded of the neighborhood in Texas where I used to live-- where EVERY minivan within a three-mile radius had a "My child is an honors student at XYZ Middle School!" bumper sticker.

I believe a lot of the current zeitgeist has completely forgotten that part of the phrase is SELF. It has gotten to the point where most people's sense of self is 100% dependent on what OTHERS think about them. Nobody seems capable of doing a good job and feeling good about it, for its own sake... it's ALL about how many people TELL you you did a good job. Just look at MySpace and Facebook... youngsters defining their self-esteem through how many "friends" they have.

hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 8 years ago from Oregon, USA Author

I hope the kids are smart enough to realize that most myspace friends are just friend whore type of deals. A growing youngster needs affirmation, age appropriate, of course, that his sense of self esteem is on track. If it jives with what he knows in his heart, he will accept it and be nurtured by it. The rest is just bogus, he will take the money or prizes or whatever

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

Hot Dorkage, great hub on an important issue. I agree completely with what you have to say about false praise.

Where I tend to have reservations is when the idea of achievement is equated with degree of effort. Let's face it, different people are talented in different areas. Being talented mostly translates into a greater return on investment. That is, for the same amount of effort a talented person gets a better result. It really doesn't matter whether a child gets no praise, a lot of praise or a little praise;they will have higher self-esteem if they consider their achievements in their area of talent as more important than their achievements in their area of deficit.

The little girl with the speech deficit probably stopped making an effort, not because she was praised too much for every effort, but because she perceived that she wasn't getting internally rewarding results for even her best efforts.

hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 7 years ago from Oregon, USA Author

Hey Aya Katz... Yeah some people try real hard and get no extrinsic reward, and some seem to get extrinsic rewards by just getting up out of bed and smiling. Even kids know this. I'm not saying that achievement is directly proportional to effort, even perceived achievement. If little Johny barely tries and produces mediocre but passing work, I just say uh-huh. If little Johny gives it his all and fails, I give him an A for effort. In the real world you don't get anything extrinsic for effort. That's the difference between childhood and adulthood. In a family a child can receive reinforcement for trying with the hope that he is learning the skill of making a valiant effort, but in future maybe his effort should be directed in a way more likely to produce "success." and less likely to cause frustration. And another thing, you don't have to be a star at everything you do. I suck at running but I do it anyway because I like it and because it keeps me healthy. Compared to talented people, sure I never achieved much. But look at now. A lot of those "talented people" quit because they can't do times like in their 20's and so they've gone to fat and I can run rings around them now.

BTW... The little girl with the speech issue was perfectly capable of trying and improving, and had previously made tremendous improvements (when I had her.) But what she had done here was trained her new therapist to always give her a reward because the therapist didn't want her to feel bad. If you had been there watching her it was totally obvious from her body language that she thought she figured it out. You tell me a question, I answer it. Doesn't matter what the answer is. I get a token anyway.

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

Hot dorkage, basically agreed. I wasn't arguing that effort without achievement should be rewarded. That's not fair to the student, either. I'm just suggesting that there's got to be an internal reward to make us even try -- the reward can't all come from the outside.

I have a similar situation with Bow and new interns, who are willing to accept a lot less than Bow's best because he's suckering them into believing that he's dumber than he is. However, the way he got where he is wasn't because he wanted an external reward for succeeding -- he was actually trying to communicate.

So it should work more like this: you ask me questions that I'm eager to answer, and then I'll do it just for the chance to have this conversation. But when the situation is: I ask a question I already know the answer to, you demonstrate that you know the answer, too, then you get a reward, there are lots of people, including Bow, who will rebel against the set-up.

hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 7 years ago from Oregon, USA Author

Hay AK. I didn't think you meant that. You are right about an intrinsic motivation to even try, though. It is sometimes presumed that everyone wants *success* and will try to get it. But different people certainly define success differently. Maybe Bow just doesn't care to communicate with the new interns, He could be pissed off because something new was sprung on him, or maybe he doesn't like the smell of their personal care products or who knows!! I'm speculating! No little kid likes it when he's being patronized either.

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