Can building a young person's self-esteem actually be bad for them? This thought provoking question is one that I have been struggling with a lot lately. It seems that many young adults feel really good about themselves on the outside and really terrible about themselves on the inside. When I try to probe a bit into why they feel this way, they indicate that everyone around them tells them things like "you can do anything you set your mind to" but when they tried living that way, they failed. Other people tell them, "just be yourself and you'll be okay," but they dislike themselves a lot and don't feel okay at all. Though I am all for a healthy self-esteem, I am beginning to conclude that our young people need more reality and less self-esteem building.
Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor at the University of Chicago, has written a book on this subject that every parent, every school teacher and every adult who works with youth should read. It is entitled, "Generation Me: Why Today's Young American's are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled and More Miserable Than Ever Before." Dr. Twenge points out that the whole concept of self-esteem "wasn't widely used until the late 1960s, and didn't become talk-show and dinner-table conversation until the 1980s. By the 1990s, it was everywhere." The concept of self-esteem somehow transformed from a vague academic idea to a foundational cornerstone of modern culture in a single generation. Parents are reading books about how to help their children have a strong self-esteem. Schools across the country have created programs designed specifically to increase children's self–esteem. Even churches have pitched in to make everyone feel good about themselves. Dr. Twenge concludes that most of those programs "actually build self-importance and narcissism," neither of which are desirable traits.
The reason these programs seldom produce a healthy self-esteem is because they seek to help young people feel good about themselves for no particular reason. As a matter of fact, many of those programs teach kids that feeling good about yourself is more important than good performance in academics, sports or behavior. As Dr. Twenge puts it, "to translate the educational mumbo-jumbo, it means feeling good about yourself no matter how you act or whether you learn anything or not." What is the result of this self-esteem mumbo-jumbo?
Dr. Twenge says "we don't expect children to learn anything. As long as they feel good, that seems to be all that's required." Twenge goes on to report that "educational psychologist Harold Stevenson found that American children ranked very highly when asked how good they were at math. Of course, their actual math performance is merely mediocre, with other countries' youth routinely outranking American children." In other words, the kids were not nearly as good at math as they thought they were. Likewise, many young people are not as good at sports or art or music as they think they are, hoping wildly for college scholarships they have no hope of qualifying for.
This does not mean that we should not encourage healthy self-esteem in our kids; it simply means that self-esteem must be built on something real. Dr. Twenge reports that "Self-esteem based on nothing does not serve children well in the long run; it's better, for children to develop real skills and feel good about accomplishing something." She goes on to say "Self-esteem is an outcome, not a cause. Children develop true self-esteem from behaving well and accomplishing things."
As a matter of fact, building self-esteem on false premises is very unhealthy. It produces kids who can't take constructive criticism that is needed for them to improve in their areas of weakness. Dr. Twenge points out that "research shows that when people with high self-esteem are criticized, they become unfriendly, rude, and uncooperative, even toward people who had nothing to do with the criticism." This is exactly what is happening to our young people. We may think we are helping them, but in reality, we are only holding them back from seeing their real weaknesses and improving on them so they can become better people.
Though we want to be gentle with our kids so that we don't crush their spirits, we do need to start being realistic with them. Let's praise them for a job well done. Let's help them understand their weaknesses so they can work on them. Let's give them a healthy self-esteem built on reality instead of a false self-esteem that will come crashing down around them when they realize they are not going to be able to accomplish every dream or goal they set for themselves. This will be hard for some of us, but our kids need us to do this for them out of love.