The common belief that we need to raise our children’s self-esteem has become a cultural dogma. I would argue, however, that promoting self-esteem is not the real issue and that trying to raise self-esteem can even be harmful. Moreover, our efforts to build self-esteem can further our separation from God and keep us from finding happiness. Let’s see how.
How do we learn who we are?
While we are self-aware, no one is born with an inherent knowledge of self. We inherit certain characteristics and tendencies, but it’s our interaction with others that helps us form a self-concept—the beliefs we hold about ourselves. Our parents play the most prominent role in the process. During early childhood we learn limits, get feedback about the things we say and do, and have our beliefs shaped by both positive and negative reinforcement. Later, during adolescence, we expand our self-identity and move beyond what we’ve internalized from our parents. In other words, it takes an “other” to help form an “I”.
Trouble Along the Way
But what happens if the people around us are absent or dysfunctional? What if it’s our culture that’s screwed up? Can’t we expect our self-concept to take a hit too?
Yes. But if you’re a good parent, shouldn’t praising your child improve outcomes? Actually, no.
Studies have shown that telling children they’re intelligent or proficient does the opposite. Instead of boosting their confidence, it makes them preoccupied with performance. It says that to feel competent and good about themselves, they need to meet certain expectations. The result is that they become more likely to pass up opportunities to learn and grow, and they become anxious if they hit a setback. Furthermore, avoiding constructive criticism deprives them of the feedback they need to improve.1
What matters is that parents show their children unconditional love— that they are valued regardless of their characteristics or performance. Rather than trying to make your child a “winner,” researchers found that reinforcing a child’s effort at growth correlated better with greater resilience and future improvement.
The Authentic Self
Googling “self-identity,” I came across a 2014 article from Psychology Today2 that talked about the importance of discovering one’s “authentic self,” defined as our talents or skills. But how does one find an authentic self when the ruler you use (parents, society, and the people around you) is floating and without firm foundation? If society tells you that you have to be thin, smart, or popular to have value, where does that leave you if you are overweight, plain-looking, or average intelligence?
What if your child has a disability or deformity? The natural prejudice against these found in our culture can be discouraging. Some parents resort to denial or telling their child they have special abilities related to their disability. The better strategy, it turns out, is to honestly acknowledge the presence of the impairments, but as due to factors outside of the child’s control. In fact, the best approach to handling life is to stick to reality and not create a hyped-up and dishonest mind-set.3
If Not Self-Esteem, Then What?
If not emphasizing self-esteem, then what should we do?
Acknowledge the truth.
We should acknowledge the reality of a situation. We admit to having an illness, addiction, or personal defect. If we caused the problem, we should admit that too. We should stop making useless comparisons of ourselves or our children to others, and instead, try to see at ourselves as God sees us.
Love and value others unconditionally.
God made us in His image, and he created us good and lovely. Our children don’t need us to build their self-esteem, but they do need our unconditional love and for us to value them.
Reinforce efforts to grow.
Whatever our situation, we always can improve. We might not be capable of eliminating a condition, but we do have a choice about how much we will let it hold us back. And unless we are exactly like Jesus, we always have plenty of room to grow spiritually. Reinforce growth behaviors, and in the spiritual dimension, ongoing conversion.
God is our standard.
True humility is seeing oneself as God sees us. We acknowledge both our beauty and brokenness. True ugliness comes through embracing sin, not in our how we appear. Foolishness is ignoring God’s best for us, not the inability to work a math problem or shoot a three-pointer.
Be Christ to others.
God is spirit, and we are His body—His hands and feet—here on earth. We have the privilege and duty to reveal Him and his love to others. It is what a world starving for love really needs.
Identity is the first of a six-part series on forming our identity and how knowing ourselves is pivotal to spiritual growth.
1 William B. Carey, Allen C. Crocker, William L. Coleman, Ellen Roy Elias, and Heidi M. Feldman, editors, Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics 4th Edition, Saunders Elsevier: Philadelphia, 2009, pp. 428-431.
2 Shahram Heshmet, “Basics of Identity,” Psychology Today, Dec. 8, 2014, accessed February 27, 2018, URL: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/science-choice/201412/basics-identity.
3 Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, p. 434.