Panic in Piddle Park: Self and Self-Esteem

A recent Atlantic article by Lori Gottlieb, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” goes by a different hook on the magazine’s cover:  “How the Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining our Kids.”

It’s summer so I’ll keep it brief:  fear-driven pitches sell books and magazines but do little to help parents do better with children.  The end.


But… if you’ve got a couple of extra minutes we can drill a little deeper.  Gottlieb traces the ever-swinging parenting-styles pendulum that proves about as helpful as an Edgar Allen Poe accompaniment to the pit.

The experts tell us that we’re messing up our kids, and then we embrace this year’s new-new panacea.  We’re giving too many choices.  We’re telling kids they are special when they are not.  We are failing to say no and set limits.  We are failing to give our kids space to separate from us and learn from a little adversity.

This all rings true.  What we don’t get is much help in how to do better as parents.  Thus the culture of shame marches on, and we read, and blog, and self-flaggelate and continue competing (and concealing), and the whole thing seems to only continue collapsing upon itself.

When will we have had enough of all this self-involved neuroticism?

The research “shows” that self-esteem has gone up, while actual ability has gone down; further high self-esteem correlates with depression and anxiety.

Could this be a problem of semantics?  Firstly, before one can have “esteem” (i.e. opinion, positive or negative) about one’s “self” one must have a self.

Yes, we live in a culture of narcissism, but we generally misunderstand this term.  It DOES NOT mean arrogant, it means clueless (for more on this see How is Narcissism like Footed Pajamas?).  So… if you ask people if they feel that they are superior to others, and they say that they believe that they are, this means they are either superior to others with good reality-testing or… they are grandiose and overcompensating for core feelings of inadequacy and fear.

However, someone with truly good self-esteem (or at least manners) might not rate themselves as “superior” to others; their gifts might make them gifted, but this would still not make them superior to others.  Are we all created equal or not?  (and if we are equal as human beings, our SAT score or our income reflects differences but NOT ultimate superiority; and if we really think some people are superior to others, carefully consider the ultimate implications of this idea.  Hint… genocide).

Self-report is not a good measure of self-esteem.  I find it hard to imagine Einstein saying he thought he was a genius, much less superior to others.  I find it hard to imagine Cary Grant or Gregory Peck preening about how handsome they felt they were.

Perhaps what we as a culture lack are manners and a true sense of the group (i.e. we do community service so as to appear socially concerned so as to get in to college because that’s what they want… and so we try to appear that way, and then collapse later under the burden of our own phoniness).

A great unsung hero of early psychology is Alfred Adler who suggested that while we are who we are (in terms of personality), the big differential is whether we express this with, or without, “social interest.”  In other words a brilliant potential sleuth can be a robber or a detective, taking one to catch the other, as it were.  Thus we can be brilliantly against the group (gifted with low self-esteem) or for it; and even if we’re not all that gifted we can be a petty grifter or a hail fellow well met—and the good egg wins the prize of happiness.

Our kids really are special—it’s accepting that they’re ALL special that separates the Chuas from the glass slippers.  Sure, finding out what they are best at doing that can help our kids excel, but even more importantly, it’s helping them understand that whatever gifts they bring (and whatever struggles they face), these can be connected to, and ultimately placed in service of, the group.  And by group I mean animals, fish, oceans, etc. and not just other humans (although that would be a decent start).

So, if we parents keep messing up our kids by being unconscious—acting out like children (when mess up in the classic, sloppy, explosive way) or projecting and overprotecting (where we mess up in the over-indulgent, subtly crippling way)—if we really want to do better, for our kids and for each other and each other’s kids, perhaps we need to take a few deep breaths and ask ourselves what we might need in order to grow?

Dealing with our own pain is an excellent place to start.  This will help us deal with our kids’ pains and clarify the boundaries between us, rather than fuel the enmeshment leading to precious botched masterpieces.  Gottlieb cites Jean Twenge in suggesting that perseverance, resiliency and reality-testing correlate with true success.

Thus as parents let’s not beat ourselves up, nor give up, let’s admit that we’re not perfect and neither are our kids; let’s let go the notion that our kids (or we) will be happy when they get to Harvard or become doctors (but instead bank on the idea that if they find their place in the group and contribute, even at Taco Bell, this may be better for them and for our world than the nightmare we’ve been propagating).

There is plenty of good common sense in Gottlieb’s article… I’m just not sure how much the magazine-selling fear and guilt trumps and obscures the message, eight pages in: “…the truth is, there is no single foolproof recipe for raising a child.”

So, if you are going to push your kid to excel (or “support” them, as we might frame it… and I join you in this, in the service of my kids and all our collective kids), let’s re-frame “excel” to at least include being a positive member of the big group we all already are—for if we are against the ultimate “group,” the zeitgeist of what simply is, we (and our kids) are swimming against the current.  Perhaps this helps explain why so many parents seem to be so tired, worried and dour.

The Tao Te Ching says that water, because it prefers low places, is above all things (and can accomplish much, eroding stone over time).  So… last one in the collective pool is a rotten egg (and a sour grape).

Namaste, BD


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10 Responses to “Panic in Piddle Park: Self and Self-Esteem”

  1. Mark Says:

    Part of why I’m so enamored with brain science is a. we’re all equal under the neuron – we simply each have our own unique matrices of energy and information flow; and b. brain plasticity makes some extraordinary things possible.

    I also like the observation of Shunryu Suzuki – We’re all perfect just as we are; and we could use a little improvement.

  2. Pamela Says:

    thank you Bruce for this excellent and clear directive. I have been reading Deepak Chropra’s 7 Spiritual Laws of Success and he has a similar stance: help your children – and yourself – identify their unique gifts and use them to serve.

    I love how you wrote that our kids reallly are special, but we are missing the fact that we are ALL special.

  3. Katrina Kenison Says:

    I’m glad that you keep reminding us that our real purpose here is to develop our own gifts, whatever they may be, and use them — in service to others. The specialness comes when we take the time to really see another human being, and when we allow ourselves to be fully seen and known as well. It’s so hard, and so worth it. The idea of serving may be too obvious to sell magazines, but your message certainly resonates with me. Thank you.

  4. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Hear, hear!

  5. Randy Says:

    I remember an interview where Cary Grant talked about he fact that he wished he could be Cary Grant. He understood the character he played and was able to separate it from Archibald Leach. That’s what made him Cary Grant. But still, if I could just be Cary Grant…

  6. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    “Let’s re-frame ‘excel’ to at least include being a positive member of the big group we all already are.”

    As a teacher, I saw few parents who would have been willing to have their kids simply be a positive member of the group; to those parents, it was about being at the top of the heap – maybe even so outstanding as to be above the heap altogether.

    I know that it will take some concerted effort for me to overcome this tendency in myself as I raise my kids. In my heart I know I want them to be whatever they want to be; in my head I know it will be a struggle for me to convey the message that Taco Bell is as good as Tao Te Ching. Your reminders help, though, as do the support of this community.

    Thanks, Bruce.

  7. Karyn @ kloppenmum Says:

    This is why we focus on self-assurance (which is quiet and graceful) over self-esteem (which is not) in our house.
    I do however think there is a pattern for raising children – there are biological reactions when we do some things and not others, and there is a slop-zone where we can get it not quite how biology wants it and still raise great kids. The problem is that parents are programmed by their own experiences to think that the way they do things is ‘the way’ not realising they are repeating patterns – not always helpful ones.

  8. Wolf PascoePascoe Says:

    “Fear-driven pitches sell books and magazines but do little to help parents do better with children.”

    Amen. There is nothing useful for parents in Gottlieb’s article, and much that is damaging. It’s a guidebook written by a tourist. As you rightly point out, Bruce, studies of “self-esteem” are fraught with semantic assumptions and cannot be taken at face value.

    The wonderful Alfie Kohn has given lie to this kind of facile writing in his essay, “Spoiled Rotten — A Timeless Complaint,” (, well worth the read.

  9. Good « Walking on My Hands Says:

    […] week, Bruce at Privilege of Parenting wrote a fabulous counterpoint to Lori Gottlieb’s Atlantic article, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.” […]

  10. The Cult of Self-Esteem Says:

    […] ha. There is is. As I thought about this further (and read  some commentaries on the article, like this one in particular) I came to realize that it’s not really self-esteem that’s ruining our […]

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