Debunking the Myth of Self Esteem
Parents and educators are perennially concerned about an elusive concept we call self -esteem. There are many books written and curricula established around the goal of fomenting, augmenting, or facilitating the development of self- esteem in children. (Not to mention a good vocabulary) Frequently one will hear that children are fragile and easily wounded and that we need to be exceptionally vigilant to stroke and praise them and to avoid saying things that might cause narcissistic injury and lead to a failure to thrive or succeed on the part of our sensitive children. It is argued that we, the adults, need to be sensitive to and aware of all sources of negative feedback that our children receive and to run interference so that the impact of said negative feedback is minimized or avoided altogether. I believe that this is a mistake.
In fact, there are several things that I believe with regard to the concept of self- esteem. To Wit:
1. Children must fail.
2. Children must develop an internal locus of control.
3. Children must develop the capacity for delayed gratification and impulse
4. Children must experience consequences in order not to suffer from learned
5. Children must learn to submit to discipline and rules.
6. Praise matters, but…….
7. Children must be required to stretch beyond their comfort zone.
8. Children must learn to work for what they want.
9. Children must have opportunities to experience internal satisfaction for doing
well and achieving their goals.
Examining this list, one might ask, “What does failure have to do with self- esteem?”
I contend that children need to experience small successive failures in order to develop resilience and learn from their mistakes. If they do not learn to bounce when they fall when they are young and closer to the ground, then when they grow up and fall for the first time the cost will be exponentially higher. I believe that we do not want our children to experience their first failures when those failures are indeed, very costly. Developmentally, it is so much better for a child to be frustrated because he struggles to tie his shoes which makes him angry and upset. This offers him an opportunity to learn to master his emotions, his frustrations and develop new skill sets. The lesson becomes so much more than tying his shoes, he learns about his capacity to overcome frustration, to deal with adversity and takes a small step in increasing his mastery over life itself, as he experiences it.
Self -esteem means feeling at peace with yourself because you have a sense of who you are. That person with whom you feel that peace is capable, positive, and functional. In the psychological literature, it is often called self efficacy. It is a term coined by Bandura in the 1970’s and describes the level of confidence that individuals have in their ability to execute a course of action or attain specific performance outcomes. Bandura maintains that self efficacy is cognitive in nature. It is malleable and influenced by information derived from four main sources; performance accomplishments, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion and the control of negative emotions.
Children learn they can impact their environment to generate results that satisfy them. It is a manifestation of what we call healthy narcissism. When a child fails to get what they want or to do what they want, it challenges their sense of grandiosity and causes them discomfort, pain or anger. Those moments of pain, discomfort, and anger are what we call “teachable moments” for the parent and the school. What skills and resources can we help the child to tap into so that they pick themselves up, dust themselves off and re-engage? Part of the challenge of fighting the narcissistic grandiosity of the developing child is to help them create what is called the observing ego. This term comes from a Freudian concept many of you are somewhat familiar with; the Id, the Ego, and the Super-Ego. The observing ego is that portion of the Ego which learns, analyzes and makes a choice based on feedback provided by consequences.
Discipline is the handmaiden of failure. Schools need to establish rules and procedures which are supported by consequences. Those consequences must be applied, not just talked about or threatened. Discipline is essential to the establishment of delayed gratification and impulse control. Initially, discipline is externally imposed. Children experience it as consequences provided by parents or systems. We must not fall prey to the temptation of only offering our children positive reinforcements and rewards. If they get a reward every time they attempt something, they soon learn only to work for rewards. They never experience the internalization of drive, discipline, and motivation as well as the satisfying experience that come from success and mastery. The reward is not earned, but granted. We need to establish systems at school and home where we are utilizing consequences so that children experience the frustration of failure and utilize it to motivate them to try again, try differently and try harder to master the situation. As they learn to do this, they internalize their discipline as self-discipline and they experience an internal locus of control, thereby developing genuine, usable, positive self-esteem. The observing Ego would say that this is the outcome of calculating the cost/benefit ratio of the choice making.
Our culture generally is one that does not like consequences. We live in a society that likes the quick fix. We protect our children too much and give into their demands and expectations (grandiosity) too easily. Our schools are too focused on making every child win, comfortable, happy, and have good grades. This is not in the best interest of the individual child, and it is not in the best interest of our culture at large. We must work to socialize children to be capable, functional and independent. That is more likely to happen if they have internalized discipline, a drive to overcome frustration by learning to master situations and circumstances, and a sense of capacity to perform. That is what we call self-esteem!