The Self-Esteem Trap

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The Article

I have a confession to make. My daughters are not actually enrolled in soccer this summer. I’m not sure if this is illegal or not—Matthew Perry of Friends once said that it was illegal for young boys not to play hockey in Canada—but if it is, I hope that society will go easy on me. The truth is, my kids have been involved in so many after school activities this year that we’re looking forward to a bit of a break.

But most of my friends have signed up their kids for soccer, and I understand why. Kids love it, it’s not nearly as competitive as hockey, and nobody looks like an idiot. The little girls wandering off to pick wildflowers still look like stars when they realize the ball is coming and they jump into the fray, dandelion necklaces and all!

Best of all, though, is the uninterrupted time we can spend cheering our kids on. Kids simply crave our attention. All of us have, at some time or another, been inundated by constant “Mom, look at me” or “Dad, watch this!”, as we try to have a conversation. A kid won’t feel like he or she is successful until you as a parent tell them they are. That’s why kids who have lost a parent through desertion often have a hard time sorting out their identity. They feel unaffirmed.

Nevertheless, I think we can take this quest for self-esteem too far. I once read a study from February 1996 Psychological Review that said that the majority of American inmates on death row had very high self-esteem—and that that may be part of the problem!

Perhaps our difficulty in understanding whether high self-esteem or low self-esteem is to blame for society’s problems is that we don’t know what self-esteem is. Essentially, it means to feel good about ourselves. But all of us know someone—maybe at work, or on our street, or in our own families—who feels just great about him or herself but who everyone else firmly believes is a complete jerk. Some things aren’t worth feeling good about.

I remember one time I just lost it with my daughters. The house was a mess, I was trying to get dinner ready, and I had asked them repeatedly to clean up. Instead they were just dawdling. Finally I started yelling hysterically and soon we all ended up in tears. Did I have high self-esteem then? No, I felt like a pretty bad mother. And maybe that was a good thing, because I knew I had problems both with anger and with finding strategies to get them to obey me, and I needed to work on both. In short, I had an accurate picture of myself.

And in the end that’s what we should strive for. I want my daughters to know what they’re good at, what they’re not, and where they need to improve. I want them to have standards. I don’t want them to feel they’re the best at everything, which is often what we tell them. Let’s say a four-year-old boy draws a picture he knows he didn’t try very hard at, and you gush all over it and say how great it is. Or your ten-year-old daughter shows you a report she’s thrown together in under ten minutes, and you proclaim it wonderful. They know they didn’t work at these things. They know they’re garbage. So they learn you have no taste and not to trust what you say.

But if you say something like, “that’s an interesting picture, Timmy, but I’ve seen you draw better ones,” or, “Well, Julie, what do you think of the report?”, you challenge them to analyze themselves accurately. And that’s what counts.

So as I think of parents out on the soccer fields, I’m glad they’re there cheering their children on, whether or not they’re successful, as long as they try. But maybe we should think hard before we cheer on everything they do. Our kids are only human. Let’s help them deal with their weaknesses, revel in their successes, and see life through clear glasses.

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