For several years now, critics of our educational system and parenting culture have been saying that at the same time the academic performance and morality of American youth plummet, these same children and adolescents carry an outsized opinion of themselves. The shorthand goes that they have too much self esteem. However, if you understand the definition and source of true self esteem, you’ll see that our kids are sorely lacking in the stuff.
First, let’s fix on a good definition. Authentic self esteem is based on the self respect that emanates from external reality. It does not come from internal fantasies fed by well intentioned parents showering their kids with unearned praise. Self-esteem and self-respect may appear to be synonyms, but as child psychiatrist Jack Westman points out in our new book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Child & Adolescent Psychology, they are not. A child’s self-esteem, Dr. Westman explains, can be low or high based on a fantasy he holds about himself, whereas self-respect is based on reality. You can have high self-esteem, and still be a selfish, inconsiderate person.
Kids who have been “spoiled,” whose parents consistently tell them that they are smarter, more creative, athletically gifted, and all around superior to others, can have high self-esteem. But this form of self esteem crashes when they are frustrated or don’t get the sort of approval they have come to expect.
In contrast, self-respect is having a good evaluation or judgment of yourself and having that view validated by realistic accomplishments and experiences with other people. Self-respect gives rise to authentic high self-esteem. This internal feeling is based on external reality.
Because these two words have been conflated in general use, we’ll refer to self respect (as we’ve defined it here) as self esteem but please understand that we are referring to the authentic meaning of this over-used, misunderstood term.
Why Does Self Esteem Matter?
Authentic self-esteem in children is important for a child’s emotional, social, and-now the research makes clear-also for her intellectual development. Sources of self-esteem include the following:
- A child’s innate temperament helps shape her self-esteem. Easy, friendly temperament children tend to develop more self-esteem than children with difficult, inhibited temperaments.
- When parents are willing to discuss household rules and discipline with them, their children’s self-esteem rises. A child then internalizes the message that she is important enough for her opinions to be heard.
- Parents’ consistent warmth, affection, and involvement with their children builds self-esteem. A hug sends the simple message: “You are important to me.”
- Self-esteem also comes from the peer comparisons a child makes and approval or rejection she experiences from peers.
- Self-esteem comes from a child’s emerging “belief system” which can be seen as an accumulation of all of the preceding.
The Problem for Tweens
It’s probably not a surprise to hear that the children most vulnerable to low self esteem are 9 to 12 year olds. When measured by psychological researchers, self-esteem is highest in preschool and lowest at the start of junior high school. In a study of 2,000 low- to middle-income children living in the greater Detroit area, 25 percent of this age group had negative self-esteem. Their negative views of themselves showed up on all three scales measured: academic competence, social acceptance, and global self-worth. On each scale, 5 to 10 percent more girls than boys displayed negative self-esteem.
Why is it so tough to be a tween? First they’re undermined by vast hormone-driven body and mind changes. They literally don’t feel like themselves anymore. To add to their emotional challenges, the transition from elementary to high school is when children fall from a secure social position to a new unfamiliar one, and find themselves at the “bottom of the pecking order.” It’s also the age when many are pulling away from their parents, not confiding all their thoughts and feelings, and not allowing as many kisses and hugs as they used to. Still, by understanding the source of true self esteem, and then helping guide their tweens to adopt attitudes and engage in activities that will give them cause to feel good about themselves, parents can help them navigate this difficult transition.
How to Give Praise
Authentic self-esteem in children does not come from adults offering unearned rewards or praise-simple, right? Apparently not, because in one national survey 85 percent of parents said they think it’s important to tell their kids-early and often-how smart they are.
The problem is this approach backfires. Kids as young as seven know when they’re hearing an untruth about themselves. For instance, if an adult tells a child how fabulously he just did at bat after he struck out, he’ll sense the adult’s false praise.
So what is effective praise? What works with children is the same as with adults. Praise works when it is:
- Specific to an accomplishment
A child can get addicted to false praise. The reward system of the brain will anticipate it and begin sending out dopamine when praise is received. Not receiving praise then becomes a problem for the child. The child who depends on unearned praise will not take risks and will care only about getting good grades. He is more likely to cheat on tests. In other words learning loses its intrinsic value; it’s all about performance and how good he looks to those whose praise he covets.
Meanwhile, the ability to sustain a task and accept a certain amount of frustration and failure is essential to learning and creating in school and in life. When a child is too afraid of failure and too dependent on false praise, she is at greater risk for failure. Praise should be given for sustained effort and rewards should come only with success, not a near miss. From these experiences a child will develop authentic self-esteem and a solid core of emotional resiliency-the all important ability to bounce back from failure or adversity.