Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Why our children need self-esteem

I took a little thousand-mile (all right, 950, close enough) road trip on Sunday-Monday.

I'm a music addict behind the wheel, so I spent a fair amount of time skimming what used to be called "the radio dial" for something to amuse my ears. (I don't do well with audio-shiurim while driving; either I pay too much attention to the shiur, or too little...)

One find was a country song called "International Harvester," which I found very funny. It's exactly the kind of song I imagine when people talk about country music - an amusing set of lyrics about rural life, with a rude gesture toward people who don't like it.

I also heard way too many stations broadcasting Rush, Michael, Glen et al. I can't listen to them; often I disagree, but even when I do agree, it's still painful. It's like listening to someone exaggerating my own views to the point of parody.

And I heard an interview with a parenting expert who pontificated about how we coddle, pamper and otherwise spoil our children entirely too much. That one really set me off.

I do believe that many people do pamper their children too much, but I was annoyed by the way the interviewer played down the need for parents to build their children's self-esteem. Our battles for the esteem of others pale in comparison with our battle for our own self-respect, and particularly in our adolescent years.

If we want our children to be Avraham and Sarah, striking out on their own with confidence in both Revelation and Vision, we had better provide them with self-esteem.

If we want our children to be Sarah and Rivkah, boldly protecting their progeny and shaping the next generation, we had better provide them with self-esteem.

If we want our children to be Yehoshua and Kalev, bucking the Meraglim [Spies], we had better provide them with self-esteem.

The anti-self-esteem line of thinking reminded me of a post by Therapydoc last week, available here, on the misguided notion of promoting humility by tearing kids down. As she put it, "[A] little humility is a good thing, but beat the "I" out of a kid only if you want that kid to forever compare himself and come up short. Any beating will do, to facilitate low self-esteem. Just name your abuse of the day-- emotional, verbal, physical, financial, sexual-- they'll all do the job."

TD noted a few of the reasons why we so easily develop low self-esteem, including:

(1) The way we compare ourselves to others;
(2) The toll of failure;
(3) Lack of praise from others.

All true; we've all seen it. And in the comments on her post, I added a fourth based on my own experience, and TD esteemed it enough that I think I'll include it here:

(4) Another cause for unrealistically low self-esteem, in my experience: We live with knowledge of our flaws, and we see the damage they cause for us. Other people tend to be more forgiving of these defects (or, at least, less concerned than we are).

Humility is a good thing, and our children need it, and we must help them develop it - but not at the expense of self-respect.

Just something to think about, fruits of a long drive.


  1. wadr imho humility and self esteem are not necessarily bar plugta's - a bright kid can be encouraged to appreciate the gift hkb"h gave them without letting everyone else know he is a tulip and not a rose (like the kids don't know which is the smart group). Humility means knowing the source, not denying the gift.

    Joel Rich

  2. Good post, important topic.
    I think that balance is the key here. You want to promote a healthy amount of self worth and confidence, but not instill an unrealistic sense of entitlement.
    (My teenage nephew sums this up well when he says, in a sarcastic exaggerated little-boy voice "I'm the best guy in the whole world. My Mommy says that I'm very very special").

  3. Another cause for low self-esteem is low expectations. If we don't instill in our children that they are capable of more, they won't believe it. We do need to instill a sense of self-esteem (not over-entitlement), but that also doesn't mean praising everything a child does -- especially when both parties know the child is under-performing.

  4. Joel-
    Agreed, sort of. I do believe that both can/must be maintained. Where I disagree that I believe humility is also internal, not only external.

    Agreed; the question, of course, is how to get there...

    Indeed. I am not a fan of the idea of unrealistic praise, and I do think we should help our children set their sights high.

  5. Where I disagree that I believe humility is also internal, not only external.
    I didn't mean to say that-if anything it is more internal if defined as I defined it .

    BTW R'A Rakeffet is good for driving listening.
    Joel Rich

  6. I don't think the pontificating is directed towards the basic concept of self-esteem. Today the concept of self-esteem has been taken to an extreme. The extremism is shown when schools ban competitive games because the losers might feel a lack of self-esteem.

    Self-esteem is not produced by sheltering kids from losing, but rather by teaching them to handle losing gracefully. It isn't produced by sheltering kids from insults, but rather by teaching kids how to react (or not to react) to insults.

    True self-esteem comes from knowing you can handle life adventures. That is the kind of self-esteem we all need. The kind that people like Rush (and myself for that matter) object to is the phony kind that comes from not acknowledging that we are not perfect. Nine times out of ten such people have low self-esteem. The one time out of ten is probably as close to sociopathic as can be produced by society.

  7. Self-esteem comes not from being told that you are good, but from being shown how good you are. Every little kid holds up their project and yells "I did it!". The hard part is helping them continue to take that pride in their accomplishments as they get older. They need challenges that they can work at, and see themselves overcome.

    My boys have been involved in Scouting, which is full of structured, reachable goals. It also puts the kid up against his own skills and abilities, not those of others (as you get in competitive sports). As a Scout leader, we are taught to let them do things for themselves, even if it takes a few extra tries. Self-respect, like any respect, should be earned.

    To teach a kid self-respect, the best thing is to catch them being good, and make sure they recognize themselves for the things they do well.

  8. Of course I'm honored, Rabbi. I wonder what your readers (and you) are going to think about my next post (should say eventual post if not next) on the upside of failure. Drive safe, please.

  9. Joel-
    Then I misunderstood your statement that a child should appreciate his gifts "without letting everyone else know..." That was what I took as external.

    Is there not a broad chasm between sheltering children from defeat and depriving children of praise?

    All sounds good and reasonable to me; thanks for commenting.

    Thanks! Phone in the back seat is a step I'm not ready to take, but no texting/emailing, certainly.

  10. There is a broad chasm between the two, but it appears to me that the problem (and what is being attacked) is not a middle ground but the sheltering from defeat.

    When I was in 10th grade our English literature teacher said at the beginning of the year that he could care less whether a person took 20 minutes or 20 hours to write a paper. He would grade based on results alone. This might seem harsh (but he tried so hard, can't you give my son a break?), but in the real world the people who write our paychecks require results, not effort. This is because the customers don't care how hard we work; they merely want results. Do you care how hard it was to build your house, or do you care for the quality? It doesn't matter how hard they worked if your roof leaks.

    By all means we should encourage our kids to work hard, but we should not confuse effort with results.

  11. This is important and as was said so is balance. I think that we need to teach our children how to cope with failure.

    When things go wrong they need to know what to do, but at the same time you don't want to let them be crushed by it.

  12. To which Michael are you referring? There are at least 2 (who are both Jewish)!

  13. Marc-
    Why do you assume that this (sheltering) is what is being attacked?


    I meant Michael Savage.