Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Next Generation: Snared in the Self-Esteem Trap

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.


  1. Great blog. The word "fantasy" is a familiar word. Much of the impact of pseudo self-esteem has been bloated egos and a fantasy world. True self esteem is established through an acceptance of ourselves as sinners with the wonderful opportunity of a loving Father offering grace. We are created in Christ Jesus unto good works. As this plays out, self esteem becomes "God esteem".

  2. Marty Bascom, pastor, East Randolph Baptist ChurchApril 9, 2010 at 11:29 AM

    Challenging subject for sure. I have been helped greatly as I consider Romans 12:3 being reminded of the danger of thinking too highly of self. All generations have struggled with pride and it seems that self esteem is dangerously close to pride. I struggle with helping people see God's view considering that we are sinners yet reminding them that man is created in the image of God and fearfully and wonderfully made.

  3. Warren Treichler, pastor, Northshire Baptist FellowshipApril 9, 2010 at 11:32 AM

    Not self-esteem, Christ-esteem, this resolves all the issues and concerns faced when trying to untangle the self-esteem dilemma.

  4. I believe the best thing anyone can do to build self-esteem is for he or she to come to the belief that the Creator of this never ending universe and everyone and every thing in it, loves human beings so much that He gave His only begotten Son........."

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Agreed for the most part. For at least me my parents focus on my weakness's, Which in fact boosts my self-esteem even more because it makes me think there opinion doesn't matter, and when you realize your parents opinions don't matter, you realize that your better than they think.

  6. What is happening now is have already created a generation (my generation) of people who "just want to feel good about themselves." We have, in turn, produced children who we just want to have feel good about themselves. What this translates to is a population of parents who are not so interested in what their children are accomplishing in school or whether or not they are behaving, but rather that they are not unhappy when they get home.

    There is a great book written for those in educational circles called "Punished by Rewards" that speaks to the same subject. We have so blurred the lines between achievement and feeling good about ourselves that we are producing the next generation of believers in the line "it's all about me."

    The sad thing is, they realize how little truth exists in the superficial, flattering comments of others. And the trust issues that come as a result....... See More

    Long-winded comment, I know, but I totally agree with what you are saying!

  7. In my day, we didn't have self-esteem, we had self-respect, and no more of it than we had earned.

  8. Cheyenne Bonnell, 13 year oldApril 12, 2010 at 4:20 PM

    Well, this may sounds weird coming from me of all people but, now that I think about it, it could very well be futile to build up self esteem. If you think about like this, if this generation builds up enough self esteem, they may think that they have power, maybe more power then really do.

  9. Robyn Cates, Public School TeacherApril 12, 2010 at 4:21 PM

    I understand your point, Cheyenne. Your generation is poised to do great things. But if your source of strength is in your own self-worth (which can be up one moment and down the next) instead of in God, whatever you set yourself to do can be frail. It's the foundation you build upon that matters.

  10. Cheyenne Bonnell, 13 year oldApril 12, 2010 at 4:22 PM

    Yes, as you said, if the generation's power and strength is in its own self worth, which will be up and down, it can be competely futile. When they lose that feeling of control, they may break down, and that point would lower their maximum self esteem and possibly their comfort zone as well.

  11. Donna Russell, pastor's wifeApril 12, 2010 at 4:23 PM

    There is a big difference between self-esteem and self-centeredness. Self-esteem should include balance between how you view yourself and how you view others. The Bible says, "Don't think more highly of yourself than you ought." (Rom. 12:3) A healthy self-esteem is also realistic. When we go to an extreme, it becomes unhealthy and becomes self-centeredness.

  12. I think that you have self respect to give respect, maybe that is the starting point. I know many young adults, even some who go to church, that treat their parents and others like they know nothing and they are the self proclaimed expert on any subject that is brought up. They won't listen to any advice because they know it all.

  13. Thanks for all the great comments. This thread has got me thinking more about this issue. I plan to write a follow up blog later this week.

  14. Christ is more concerned with our character than our comfort... (Rick Warren) Parents tend to be more concerned with our comfort than character....

    Our definition of success needs to be reconsidered, definition is such that very few are truly considered successful.. The wealthy, famous, rich or extreme athletes are the successful ones.... The other 98% of us pale in comparison... sooooo its hard to "feel" successful under this standard. Parents often try to help "unsuccessful" youth feel good about themselves by displaying the behavior Terry referred to.........

    Time to reconsider what a successful young person looks like and to follow Christ in showing more concern for kids character than their comfort...