Self Esteem Can Not be Counterfeit
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!
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
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.
More by this Author
Do you have a slew of great punchlines welling up inside you but can't draw? Do you have statements you want to make but need a "sock puppet" to say them for you? Do you like messing around on the internet?...
If you are a parent or a grandparent tired of the old pizza and movie routine with the kids, here's a huge suggestion list of activities to stimulate, interest, educate, and strengthen the family bond.
Hot dorkage debunks the idea of colon cleansing and mucoid plaques by performing an out-of-bowel simulation, and reporting the results with a good dollop of humour. Everyone who is thinking about swallowing a colon...