Back in the 1990s, "self-esteem" was a potent buzzword in parenting and educator circles. High self-esteem, the thinking went, led to high achievement in both school and relationships. And low self-esteem was thought to lead to problems such as substance abuse, teen pregnancy, crime, and poor scholastic performance.
Today, most parents are familiar with -- if not downright devoted to -- the idea that children need high self-esteem. But has the combination of too much self-esteem and "over-parenting" led to a generation of youth whose sense of entitlement far outweighs their actual abilities -- never mind their achievements?
Some child development experts are beginning to think so. "The commonsense understanding of self-esteem has been obscured by its over-application," says Allan Josephson, MD, chairman of the Family Committee of the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "Self-esteem certainly is important. But we've developed this misguided notion that parents should continually reward and praise their children. That doesn't work either."
The potential links between high self-esteem and high achievement seem intuitive enough. But some new analyses suggest the opposite: that high self-esteem can lead to problems, including narcissism, bullying, increased drug and alcohol use, and more teenage sex, not less. By the same token, low self-esteem doesn't lead to as many risky behaviors as previously thought.
Moreover, notes Josephson, it's become clear that while a lack of nurturing can lead to low self-esteem, too much nurturing can also create problems. That's because overvalued children depend on outside praise to feel good -- and when that parental praise is lacking, such as when the child heads off to college, low self-esteem can come crashing in because there's no strong internal sense of worth.
Josephson points out that both overvalued and undervalued children may adapt by putting their own needs first. The overvalued child truly believes he's superior to others, and the undervalued child figures if he doesn't get what he needs, no one else will help him get those things either. Both groups may act selfishly.
Healthy "self-esteem comes from having parents who are physically and emotionally available," emphasizes Josephson, "and who set appropriate limits on their [children's] behavior, and then help them develop autonomy. It should be a by-product of a healthy relationship with a child, not the goal."
Kids & Self-Esteem: Finding a Happy Medium
Josephson suggests parents try the following to strike a healthy balance:
- Help your children master the tasks associated with, and only with, each developmental stage, from infancy through young adulthood.
- Teach young children to control their impulses and respect the rights of others.
- Reward and applaud true accomplishments; praising every little thing may lead to a constant need for praise.
- Set limits and stick to them, explaining why a specific action or behavior has a specific consequence.
- Help teens develop autonomy; do not coddle or overprotect them. You'll do it at their expense.