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Wed, June 19

Column: Kids' self-esteem should be earned

We are making a grave error in our culture, when we attempt to instill our children with too much self-esteem. Parents should impart a foundational amount to their children by letting them know how much they are loved and how beautiful they are. Self-esteem, however, like respect, serves the individual better when it is earned. When too much of either or both is given gratuitously, it over-inflates the ego and can make one insufferable.

The phenomenon of imposing too much self-esteem upon our children has become epidemic and is harmful, not only to the individual child, but to society in general. The causes, it seems to me, are twofold. First, we want to shield our children from the harmful effects of the real world. This often can be counter-productive and can reach absurd conclusions.

One of my daughters-in-law, Jackie, told us of a play date she and her son had with another mother and her son. While watching the boys play in the backyard, the other mother asked Jackie if her son had any toy guns. Jackie said that he did possess several toy space guns and laser rifles. The other mother told Jackie that her son's toy box also included an arsenal of such weaponry, but that she and her husband didn't call them "guns," they called them "air blasters" in front of their child.

A good friend of mine, Jim, related a story about visiting his son's family in one of the most politically correct areas in one of the most politically correct states: Napa, California. His five-year-old grandson handed him a deck of cards and asked him if he wanted to play cards. Jim asked his grandson if he knew how to play that simple, timeless, child card game of War. His grandson said, "Grandpa, war is a bad word. We can't say that." In addition, there were several other ordinary English words that were banned in his son's house including the words, "hate" and "stupid." I wonder if, when Jim's grandson gets a little older, this word ban will remain in force. If it is enforced, I would love to hear his parents explain, in words a nine- or ten-year-old can understand, how much they "severely disapprove" of genocide, murder and global warming. Will they explain that if someone seriously abuses drugs or sniffs glue or some other chemicals they will become "immensely handicapped intellectually?"

The second irresponsible ego enhancer is removing all competition from children's games and then rewarding the individual child for "participation." This is enormously asinine. There is virtually no progress without competition. If you shield a child from the "agony of defeat," you simultaneously hide from that child the "thrill of victory." In addition, if one thinks that the kids playing the games are unaware of the score, one is deceiving him or herself.

What is worse is giving praise or awards that are undeserved. When everyone on a team is given an award or trophy for an ever-expanding number of inconsequential categories, what is the impetus for anyone on that team to try harder the next season? Yet even the child who expended little effort can now feel good about his or her "participation." That kid has not been humiliated by not receiving a trophy or plaque. His or her self-esteem is increased.

One wonders when self-esteem became the most important goal in sports, education and life, but it was wrong to make it so. Especially a young life should involve learning from one's mistakes and failures. Self-esteem at that age is a roller coaster. Lows occur after errors and highs happen when hurdles are overcome. Often, self-esteem can be evil. A gang-banger who just shot the member of an opposing gang has extremely high self-esteem, frequently even after he's been arrested and even convicted. Aren't bullies similar?

Now, this problem is manifesting itself in the mainstream youthful population. The American Freshman Survey, with 47 years of data from nine million young people, has some frightening results. College students now are more likely to see themselves as gifted and driven. It doesn't appear to matter that their time studying and test scores are diminishing. The tendency toward narcissism in students had increased 30 percent in some 30 years according to a study by psychologist Jean Twenge.

Falsely attained self-esteem is not a good thing. Far more important is hard work, effort, tenacity, compassion and selflessness. These are what parents, teachers and society should be imparting to our kids. It is also the basis of real self-esteem.

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