Oh, For The Sake Of A Little Self-Esteem

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by Keith McCurdy

Have you ever done an internet search on self-esteem?  I just did and wow, I think satellites are still linking up to download information.  With that many resources available, how can our children still be suffering from low self-esteem?  Well, maybe they are not.  Have you met many teenagers today?  How can the most entitled group of individuals in our recent history be guilty of not thinking positively of themselves?  The problem is exactly the opposite….. they think too highly of themselves.

Unfortunately the whole self-esteem movement is another example of where we have missed the boat again with our children.  It has been subtle but very damaging.  Here are three examples.  The first comes from a comment a prominent educator made to me several years ago.  I was questioning why no one seemed to fail in school anymore.  She stated that what would be accomplished by holding a student back would not outweigh the damage of that student’s self-esteem.

Now, while that may sound absurd to some, it sounds great to many who have echoed that very sentiment to me over the years when I recommend holding kids back.  Here is the absurdity.  If we pass a kid along who we don’t believe can handle the emotional burden of realizing that they are not equipped to move ahead, how is that same child going  to emotionally handle moving ahead unprepared which will lead to more academic struggle and failure?  For the average child in this situation there are two paths…. continue to fail and eventually drop out, or be passed along and graduate unprepared for the future.

A second illustration is the notion that we are to continually praise our children.  By doing so I was told,” they will begin to think more positively of themselves.” The other day I actually came across a pamphlet I have had for several years titled: 101 ways to praise your child today.  Holy cow, that is a lot of praise.  The issue with praise is this: a little goes a long way.  When we overdo it we begin to create both an expectation and desire for it.  Neither is healthy.  I want my children to do what they are supposed to do in life not because they will be praised, but because they know they are supposed to.

When we overload the praise, we begin the very subtle process of our children being concerned about what others think of them…. hello peer pressure.  Another version of this is giving rewards for appropriate behavior.  We should give awards for exemplary achievements, not appropriate behavior.  When we reward too much, children and eventually teenagers begin to expect something for the least little things they do.  In other words, they develop a very self-centered “what’s in it for me” attitude.  I actually had a kid last week tell me that if he could get some new toys or games he could do a better job with his room.  I’ll just about guarantee he already has enough based on the question.  Think of praise like salt, too much spoils the broth (kid).

The third illustration is one of my favorites.  At a conference a few years ago led by someone with the same type of credentials I have after my name, the presenter commented that we should let our children win against us when playing childhood games.  He said it was an important part of healthy development of self-esteem.  At this point let’s just say that I am not usually a rabble rouser at conferences, but I couldn’t resist.  So I shared…. When my son was learning to play checkers, I always beat him.  I am older, smarter and have played checkers a whole lot longer than him.

Now, I did not gloat or make fun of him.  I actually would play him multiple times and explained how I beat him or what moves he missed, but I beat him.  To do otherwise is to instill in him the notion that he is capable of something that he is not… or that his dad is really bad at checkers.   Only by not giving my son a false impression was he able to learn to be capable at the game, now he is tough to play….  Yes the presenter was offended.  I realized that just because he asked for questions didn’t mean he really wanted any.

Yes, this example is a little silly, but it makes the point.  Our goal is not that our children have a high self-esteem; it is that they are equipped.  Our job is to train, not inflate.

It is not surprising to me that the higher self-esteem goes, the less the concern for others becomes.  The higher a sense of humility, the more aware of the needs of those around us grows.  When I think of great people, I rarely think of those I would consider as folks with high self-esteem.  I would describe them as folks with a keen awareness of others, a history of overcoming obstacles and a connection to the real world.  Here are three examples.  If you are younger than 30, you may need to look them up.

The first is Alvin C. York.  He was born in a 2 room cabin in Tennessee and has no significant record of formalized schooling.  The second is Audie L. Murphy who grew up in extreme poverty in Texas dropping out in fifth grade.  The third is Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu who lived in poverty her entire adult life.  According to today’s standards, they all suffered from low self-esteem and most historical documents support that they really didn’t think that much of themselves.  The first was Sergeant Alvin C. York, the most decorated American soldier in WWI (great movie).   The second was First Lieutenant Audie L.  Murphy, the most decorated American soldier in WWII. The third,  is Mother Theresa.

The most important thing is not that our children see themselves positively, but that they see themselves accurately.