Putting the self in self-esteem

While self-esteem is terribly important for healthy functioning, the very concept hinges on having a solid and cohesive sense of “self” in the first place.  Having written on narcissism in this blog, I have worked to differentiate self-absorption and arrogance from cluelessness.  After all, how can one feel good about a self that one does not actually possess?

A recent article in The Atlantic by Don Peck, “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America,” references and quotes psychologist Jean Twenge (author of Generation Me) who suggests, that self-esteem in children started really going up around 1980, and, according to at least one survey, by 1999 91 percent of teens described themselves as responsible, 74 percent as physically attractive, and 79 percent as very intelligent.  Twenge chalks this trend up to “broad changes in parenting styles and teaching methods, in response to the growing belief that children should always feel good about themselves, no matter what.  As the years have passed, efforts to boost self-esteem—and to decouple it from performance—have become widespread.”

This has made kids more “confident” and “individualistic,” Twenge suggests, yet “self-esteem without basis encourages laziness rather than hard work.”   Twenge asserts that, “the ability to persevere and keep going” proves “a much better predictor of life outcomes than self-esteem.”

It’s not that I completely disagree with Twenge’s view, just that a re-think on the semantics of self and self-esteem could help us better parent our kids.  In other words, I don’t really believe that thinking we’re smart and pretty constitutes good self-esteem; thinking we’re dumb and ugly may well be a sign of low-self-esteem, but the development of a real self takes a bit more than being told we’re wonderful.

What actually builds the self is accurate understanding.  Saying, “that’s brilliant!” of pre-school scribbles may turn us into Clement Green (the critic who “made” Jackson Pollock), but it won’t make our kids into Jackson Pollock.  If we’re the non-stop cheerleader, it still leaves the power to approve and disapprove with ourselves.

This may explain why Twenge worries about kids giving up in a tough job market:  “You’d think if people are more individualistic, they’d be more independent, but it’s not really true. There’s an element of entitlement—they expect people to figure things out for them.”

Peck goes on to quote Ron Alsop, a Wall Street Journal reporter and author of The Trophy Kids Grow Up who attributes a combination of entitlement and highly structured childhoods as resulting in a “lack of independence and entrepreneurialism” in a lot of twenty-somethings—kids used to check-lists who show little aptitude for leadership or independent problem solving.

Again, I would point out that while Houston, we have a problem, the real problem is not the failure of good self-esteem to result in success, it’s the façade of self-esteem masking an underlying sense of self—a psychological crack in our collective O-Ring.  If over-indulgent, over-involved and overly encouraging parenting fails to build self (and thus leaves no foundation for authentic self-esteem) then what will help?

In the quest for a solid self, some questions to consider of our developing kids (and our selves as well) might include: “Can you be alone without feeling panicky?”  “Can you be with others without using substances to cover your anxiety?”

And forget about “smart,” humans have brains with over four billion neurons, so compared to most creatures even our most cognitively limited brothers and sisters are relatively smart.  A better question might be, “How much of your natural intelligence are you making use of?  And for what?”

Other good self-solidity questions might include, “Are you able to feel two opposite feelings, or hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time?”  Another one might be, “Are you aware that your parents are limited and have messed up and that they love you and have done a rather good job, since you are who you are and at least you know that you’re smart and pretty?”

Like Goldilocks who finds things too hot, too cold and finally just right; the self has been too neglected, then too indulged—and now it’s time to get it right.  That probably means giving our kids a little more freedom, but not free rein to play at pedophile park; it probably means that they don’t work in coal mines and factories as children, but also that we stop running Chateaux & Relais five star resorts for our kids (and then wondering why they don’t know how to do laundry, run the dishwasher or cook breakfast… as tweens and teens).

Society has shifted and we must support kids to deal with the new reality.  Still, a solid self is an essential life tool in any economy and in any age—it is the very thing that can help us transcend self-focus, attain true self-esteem and in turn bring value to others.  If we bring something to the group, the group will reward us in kind… this, over time, builds self esteem, and over the long run, through productive suffering, it also makes souls (the key developmental issue we parents must work on, individually and as a generation, or generations… us twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties parents—if you’re ninety we’ll cut you some slack).

Parenting is very tough.  We swear we’ll do the opposite of our own parents and end up with kids even more entitled than our parents accused us of being… and often more clueless than we ever were (and if they’re not clueless, they’re likely to be mouthy and difficult in challenging us on our own hypocrisy—the trick is in taking it on the chin and staying open to our own continued growth).

We parent on the horns of a dilemma—under-protect and the Department of Children’s Services may be knocking at our door, but overprotect and junior may be living at home with us at 30… partly because there are no jobs out there and partly because junior doesn’t know how to do the jobs that do show up.  To make matters worse, in the golden era of expansion, we worked, earned and spent ourselves into debt, bloat and misery (at least as an overall culture).

I know that sometimes I may come off as Pollyanna (i.e. love the world) and sometimes as very bleak and cynical (i.e. it’s all going to hell in a hand-basket), but my struggle (a work in progress to be sure) is to call it as I see it, in our oppositeness, and yet love it nonetheless.  Also to stand corrected, ready to re-think my own positions and adjust what I’m doing as a parent and as a psychologist.  In the spirit of “gotta love it,” (i.e. our culture, even if it has issues) perhaps we can strive to accurately understand ourselves, each other and our culture as a whole… building a stronger sense of self individually and collectively.

I do believe that the group is smart (sometimes in a blunt way), and thus it’s possible that our contracting economy and our gridlocked government could reflect both the confusion of we the people, but also our collective preference for inertia as opposed to full-lemming-steam ahead off the cliff.

If enough of us feel that life is getting harder or worse, not just for ourselves (and our aging parents) but for our children—the very ones we’ve worked so hard to put first, we might drift toward a more compassionate view of each other and some sort of Goldilocks solution between the opposites, perhaps a culture where no citizen is left behind, and no member of our group fails to get care and treatment when hurt or sick.

In parenting it certainly seems time for the pendulum to swing back toward a calculated level of risk for our orchid kids—a more encompassing view that holds that while each kid may well be unique, the good of the group counts for more than most of us parents have been thinking as we competed with each other, on behalf of our kids.

The entire notion of “helicopter parents” would have been unthinkable when we were kids—as a generation we were left to play in traffic.  Yet the emerging precious generation is going to have to do its own productive suffering—first to make its self, and then later to make its soul.

So, for all my “best Self” parenting talk, I’m really wanting to self-correct a bit, moving away from utter-attunement (this is a good play in the first eighteen months of life, it’s just that we have to move on, give more space… I know, we think we give enough space, but the emerging trends are telling us that we are not, we have not, and our kids are weakened by it).

Let’s re-think it as a win-win.  Less guilt for us parents (and more space to have more fun with each other and not just coo at our napping teens) and more self-building space for kids to feel a little misunderstood, a little angry… a little pissed off enough to start to figure some things out for themselves (like where the towels are and how to fry an egg).

So, let’s dedicate today to frustration tolerance—tolerating our kids’ frustration when we don’t just do everything for them, tolerating their vitriol and blame when they feel frustrated, trusting that we love them, but that we handicap them when we enable them—and knowing that there are plenty of kids who don’t get anything like the crippling level of attention we may inadvertently lavish on our kids, and saving a little juice for those kids when our own kids, nicely empowered, finally do take off and we’re left with a little extra love to throw around.

Namaste, Bruce

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6 Responses to “Putting the self in self-esteem”

  1. Laurie Says:

    Frustration tolerance. I like that. Mine and my sons. All part of the process. Thank you.

  2. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Bruce, there’s a position available chez Motherese for a full-time counselor (sort of a 21st century Maria von Trapp) to dispense wisdom to both children and parents. Said counselor must be insightful, compassionate, and capable of referencing Pollock, Goldilocks, and The Atlantic in a single essay. Any interest?

  3. Lindsey M Nelson Says:

    I really agree with what you have said here. I have come to see, for my kids, that allowing them their frustration has been instrumental in their capacity for self-development. Their frustrations motivate them to make new leaps. They are very spirited kids, and it can be really tough to weather it through with them, but I do try.

    These are the reasons our family has adopted a sort of Alfie Kohn philosophy where we don’t use punishment, rewards, or praise. It can be a challenge in this time-out/everyone-gets-a-blue-ribbon culture but I already feel I am seeing a positive effect from it at 3 1/2 years.

    On the subject of the job culture in this country (I’m 30, so just on the cusp of these 20 somethings you refer to here), I also believe a lot of our quandry comes from a major tendency toward over-specialization and I also see a lot of my peers feeling that they are failures if they don’t have some great job they can brag about at their 10 year high school reunion. It is part of what has probably long been an issue with this culture; we value what we do (and what we can have) more than we value who we are. I hope that this “recession” might help us change our attitudes about tying our self-worth up so tightly with our careers.

    Again, great post, thanks for sharing!

  4. Stephanie Says:

    Hmmm. Self. Good Idea. ; – )

  5. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Much food for thought. As usual. Greenberg and Pollock, indeed.

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