INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK
8 FEBRUARY 2002
An inflated sense of self-worth can do more harm than good
Can self-esteem be bad for your child?
Self-esteem, we are told, is the magic pill that protects children against a whole host of afflictions, from academic failure and drug addiction to eating disorders and teenage pregnancy. For years parenting manuals have instructed us to do what we can to boost our children’s self- worth — and we have responded enthusiastically, offering endless praise for the smallest effort.
I have seen a five-year-old applauded for managing to crumple paper into a ball, and the words “brilliant”, “fantastic” and “amazing” are never far from our lips. Never mind that those exposed to promiscuous praise often turn into self-centred and unbearably selfish brats, or that this creates problems with authority at home.
Meanwhile, in some primary schools, gold stars and smiley faces are doled out routinely, and no form of behaviour appears to be unworthy of approval.
The cult of self-esteem even has government backing: getting people to feel good about themselves is central to new Labour’s social policy. Some of its most highly publicised initiatives — reducing teenage pregnancy, youth employment schemes, parenting initiatives — prescribe the raising of self-esteem as their main objective.
But a low sense of self-worth may not be the social ill we believe it to be. Indeed, a report published last November by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation dismissed as myth the idea that low self-esteem drives children towards antisocial behaviour. In a review of research published in scientific journals, the report concluded that it is the confident children who are more likely to be racists, to bully others and to engage in drink-driving and speeding.
The author, Professor Nicholas Emler, of the London School of Economics, stated that the “widespread belief in raising self-esteem as an all-purpose cure for social problems has created a huge market for self-help manuals and educational programmes that is threatening to become the psychotherapeutic equivalent of snake oil”.
Emler’s sentiments, although as yet a minority view here, echo the growing backlash in America against the celebration of self- esteem. America may have spawned the cult.
“You are now looking at one of the most special people in the whole world,” declared the banner hanging above a mirror in the primary school that I visited in New York. Yet a number of commentators there now suggest that self-esteem may not be good for children. They argue that children are programmed so intensely to strive to feel good about themselves that they find it hard to handle disappointment or to respect the feelings of others.
But the growing disquiet about self-esteem took on real momentum following the school shootings at Columbine. The killers, it seems, did not suffer from low esteem, as might have been assumed, but from an unhealthy streak of individualism.
As John Rosemond, a psychologist and author of childcare manuals (including Raising a Non-Violent Child), explains it, high self-esteem is linked to low self-control, which in turn can lead to violent behaviour.
His argument is backed by the findings of Dr Roy F. Baumeister, a social scientist based at Case Western Reserve University. In Scientific American magazine, Baumeister argued recently that people with high self-esteem are likely to respond aggressively when their inflated view of themselves is threatened by criticism or perceived insult.
Subsequently the psychologists Laura Smith and Charles Elliot suggested that children with inappropriately enhanced self-esteem deal with disappointment by seeking a quick fix from drugs, violence and sex.
In their book Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth, Smith argues that “it is time we stopped feeding empty praise into our children because it is making them into empty adolescents who are more self-absorbed and materialistic than previous generations”.
If, as Rosemond puts it, “high esteem is bad” for children, where does this leave parents anxious to do their best by their child? Actually, the situation may not be as confusing as you might think. Part of the reason why the backlash is making such headway is that most of the claims made about the virtues of self-esteem have no foundation in research. As Baumeister observed: “We were unable to find any book or paper” that offered proof of the link between low self-esteem and social ills.
In Britain, the feeble intellectual foundation for the promotion of self-esteem is even more striking. British government policy and parenting advice usually refers to American research.
Yet the evidence linking high self-esteem with social problems is no more plausible. In other words, the arguments on both sides of the debate are just that — arguments. Anyway, self-esteem is notoriously difficult to measure. It is also something that cannot be raised by an official policy or instilled by a parent. This is partly because children are far too self-aware to take unearned praise seriously.
“Praising every time lowers a child’s motivation,” argues Dr Ron Taffel, a New York psychologist and the author of Nurturing Good Children Now.
The way children regard themselves is influenced by a variety of factors, such as relations with siblings and peers, community support and the economic and social opportunities that are available to them.
What is important is that parents establish an environment of security and love within which a child’s confidence can thrive — because it is the child that does the developing, through engaging in challenging activities.
When children are confronted with a challenge they are bound to experience some setbacks. In practical terms parents can play an important role in helping them to cope constructively when this happens — supportive comments such as “that was hard” helps to place their disappointment in perspective. While sometimes a child’s actions justify praise, there are times when they deserve criticism (although note, we are talking about criticising the actions; not the child).
Ultimately it is a question of judgment. The problem is that the British preoccupation with raising self-esteem has distracted many parents from working out the mix of responses appropriate for guiding their children.
A backlash against self-esteem is not the answer — we will only be replacing one unhelpful obsession with another, thereby helping to sell a new generation of parenting manuals. And that is the last thing we need.
BY FRANK FUREDI
The author is professor of sociology at the University of Kent
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