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Self-Esteem: The damaging effects of overemphasis

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

Most parents agree that self-esteem is a key part of any child’s success. It’s widely accepted that such children are happier, more accomplished, and go further in life. So focusing on self-esteem is a must, right? After all, who doesn’t want their child to have a healthy self-esteem?

The problem comes when adults elevate self-esteem above all else. They believe feeling good about oneself will enable children and teens to avoid low grades, illegal drug usage, teen pregnancies, and the like. Some schools are so bent on building self-esteem that they’ve done away with competition, IQ testing, and tracking, lest students in the lower quadrants feel bad.

Psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman dares to differ. Such hyper focus has ignored the hard work side of the equation, he said. Mastering a skill, along with handling the inevitable ups and downs, is what enables students to succeed. Feelings of self-esteem don’t cause kids to succeed, rather the feelings are “a byproduct of doing well,” Seligman said in his book, The Optimistic Child. Likewise, “low self-esteem is a consequence of failing in school, of being on welfare, of being arrested—not the cause.”

Moreover, the way self-esteem is reinforced “often erodes children’s self-worth,” he explained. “By emphasizing how a child feels, at the expense of what the child does—mastery, persistence, overcoming frustration and boredom, and meeting challenge—parents and teachers are making this generation of children more vulnerable to depression.” Seligman’s insights are backed by more than 30 years of research.

Don’t think your child is unaffected since you homeschool. Any parent can unwittingly overemphasize self-esteem. Take the mother of 9-year-old Sophia, for example. Sophia was upset because she played poorly during a soccer game. She didn’t come close to scoring; in fact, she missed the ball the few times she got close enough to kick it. After the game her mom told her, “You did great! You’re a much better player than those other girls. In fact, you were the best player out there!” Mom sincerely wanted to help Sophia feel better and encourage her to keep trying. But Sophia could see right through the untruths, so her mother’s words made her feel worse, not better.

Kids are rather astute. They call it like it is. Rather than fudging words to soften Sophia’s disappointment, her mom should have validated Sophia’s feelings. “I know you feel badly about how you played. It’s frustrating when you keep missing the ball.” Then Mom could’ve offered to help Sophia find ways to strengthen the girl’s soccer skills, like planning to practice together at home.

Here’s another aspect of overemphasizing self-esteem: Parents jump in to solve their child’s problem rather than letting the child wrestle with things and find a solution. Like when Ian, 6, had trouble building a Lego rocket, his dad stepped in and built one for him. “Dad is sending the message, ‘When things don’t go as you want, give up and let someone else rescue you,’” Seligman said. “In trying to build Ian’s self-esteem, his dad has taught him a lesson in helplessness. There is nothing wrong with letting Ian fail. Failure, in itself, is not catastrophic.”

The way a child interprets his failure is what really matters. Viewing mistakes globally (“I always mess up,” “I never do anything right”) and defaulting to passivity are signs of pessimism. Seeing failure as specific to a situation (“I don’t like how I made this rocket”) and understanding you have the power to change things are signs of optimism. And optimism can be learned.

Help your child develop an optimistic outlook by taking these steps:

· Tell the truth; don’t deny reality.

· Validate, rather than dismiss, your child’s feelings.

· Point out that one mishap doesn’t make your child a failure.

· Encourage perseverance.

· Guide your child toward exploring ways to solve the problem.

While self-esteem is important, teaching your child to manage mistakes well is even more essential. Such skills can serve him/her well for years to come.


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