I found the parish DRE* (Director or Religious Education) downstairs in the church hall. I wanted to pitch an idea to her about getting parents more involved with the spiritual education of their kids. I explained that once a month we would bring the parents into the classroom and let them work directly with their child. The teacher would coach the parents on what to do. Janet’s answer caught me off guard,
“I don’t like it.”
“Oh. Why not?”
“Well, some parents may not come, and that’s going to hurt the kids’ self-esteem.”
The Love of Self
What is self-esteem, anyway? The simplest definition I can come up with is the following: feeling good about oneself. This includes:
- Positive self-regard.
- Loving oneself.
- Believing in one’s value and abilities.
- Accepting yourself as you are.
Why do people consider self-esteem important? For two reasons. The first comes from observing the pathologic effects of people not liking themselves. People with low self-esteem lack confidence, denigrate their value and tend to ruminate about their deficiencies. It can rob someone of peace of mind and lead to paralysis of action as he dwells on his inabilities. Low self-esteem is often one of the symptoms of depression. At its worst, we see low self-esteem as one reason for suicide and even homicides (someone thinks he needs to destroy other people because he wasn’t treated right). Not everyone struggles with low self-esteem, but most people can at least identify with the desire to change something about themselves so they can be more attractive or likable.
It’s also a common belief that high self-esteem is a necessary ingredient for success. Experts tell us of the importance of communicating confidence, taking risks, and pursuing one’s goals — characteristics attributed to high self-esteem. The truth is, however, that high self-esteem doesn’t correlate well with success, better performance, or healthier relationships. In fact, when it comes to close relationships, high self-esteem can prove to be a detriment. Those who esteem themselves too highly are selfish and harbor a sense of entitlement. They become blind to the needs of others and lack empathy for others’ plights.
How big of a problem is this? As an indication of the popularity of self-help books, I did a search on Amazon.com for “self-help” resources. This yielded just under 800,000 items! I realize that not all of these talk only about self-esteem. Still, that’s a crazy number!
So, how are people dealing with this? First, let’s talk about adults. Here’s a partial list of practices to help someone build up his self-esteem:
- Give self-affirmations.
- Seek affirmation from others.
- Develop a strength or competency that others will see as valuable.
- Ignore the interior voice of self-criticism.
- Focus on your positive attributes instead of the negative ones (overcome the negative messages by mass effect).
- Ignore what you think are defects.
- Lower your standards and expectations (especially true for perfectionists).
What about helping kids improve their self-esteem? We emphasize the role of affirming children with positive statements about their characteristics and abilities while helping them develop competency in one or more areas. And we cannot reinforce enough how we need to avoid any speech or action that demeans children and makes them feel worthless!
Parents have gotten the message. Nearly every parent I speak with vocalizes the value of self-esteem. I have found, however, that their efforts to promote it has taken them places that include some not-so-good consequences.
1. Parents reduce the expectations they have for their child’s behavior, or use ineffective methods of discipline out of fear of causing low self-esteem.
Children fail to learn self-regulating behaviors and skills important for socialization.
2. Parents try to eliminate obstacles their children may encounter so everything their child does comes off successfully and without a hitch.
Children fail to learn perseverance and problem-solving. They can develop a low threshold for frustration.
3. Parents try to maximize the number of enriching experiences for their kids.
Family life becomes child-centered. In a world that revolves around them, children can become self-centered, develop a sense of entitlement, and fail to learn to look out for the interests of others.
4. Family life becomes dominated by child-oriented activities.
This adds to family stress as they try to keep up with the demands of these activities. It also takes away from other pursuits such as family rituals, relational time between family members, spiritual development, activities important to the parents or the extended family, etc.
Granted, we have way too many kids who don’t get enough attention from their parents, or they get the wrong kind, and it’s hurting them terribly.
But the pursuit of self-esteem can create a dilemma for both adults and children, too. Without a standard to define how much self-esteem is enough, we keep our foot pressed down on the gas pedal, even when it leads to harmful results. Without a standard to determine a sense of value, we end up depending on others around us to define our worth. If you’re successful competing for the attention and admiration of others, then you’re a winner. But if you don’t…? Then what about developing virtue, caring for others, love, and selflessness? Can you create cohesiveness in groups or society when everyone is looking out for their own interests? Is there a price to pay when we sacrifice the truth for the sake of feeling good about ourselves?
I believe there is a better option for all of us. Join me next week to explore a healthier alternative.
Uncovering Life-Altering Fallacies and How You Can Avoid Them: Topic #2 — Self-Esteem is the second in a series on widely-held fallacies that have a significant impact on how we live and our well-being.