I was talking to a woman the other day and she told me that the most important thing parents could give their children was self-esteem.
I didn’t say anything.
I didn’t want to be impolite.
But she was, of course, wrong.
Dangerously, completely, horribly wrong.
The most important thing parents can give their children is religious faith, the ability and desire to live a life in harmony with the divine. A life that will carry them into the eternities. A life with God at its center.
That’s the most important thing parents can give their children.
But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about self-esteem. The poison of self-esteem. This crazy fixation that occupies American educators and child psychologists, the psychobabble that has become unquestioned policy.
A policy that has crippled untold young people’s lives, and which will continue to do so, just as long as we foolishly focus on self-esteem building.
First off, self-esteem is a consequence, not an objective. Self-esteem is not something you should pursue. Rather, you should pursue the traits and habits that produce self-esteem. Self-esteem is an innate self-regulatory mechanism. We have it when we are useful and good, we don’t when we aren’t.
Self-esteem is first cousin to our conscience, and we cannot have self-esteem if we do not have the approval of our conscience.
But we’ll come back to that.
Let’s first look at the current ruinous policy of “self-esteem building.” In schools across the country self-esteem agendas, particularly among minority and disadvantaged students, are creating nothing but a generation of arrogant, self-absorbed narcissists. We are raising a generation of young people with wildly inflated views of themselves and absolutely nothing to back it up.
We teach them to talk the talk, but not walk the walk. Self-esteem building is teaching them how to do a dance in the end zone, but not how to score a touchdown. Ironically, self-esteem building – which the theorists say is so “empowering” – is making incredible numbers of young people useless to themselves and society.
In the name of self-esteem we inflate grades, we give smiley faces and gold stars and certificates when they have not truly been earned. And by so doing we cheapen achievement, and we deny young people the opportunity to learn from their failures. And by doing that we make it impossible for them to succeed. For, without the possibility of failure, there is no possibility of success.
If praise comes automatically, regardless of our effort, then we will demand it as an entitlement. And we will be taught that effort and outcome are meaningless.
Which is tragic.
Because the only true self-esteem comes from achievement. And achievement comes from work, from what you produce and earn. You feel good about a test not because of the dishonestly high grade, but because you know you worked, studied and learned.
Praise too freely given weakens. It produces spoiled brats. People who are permanently handicapped in life by virtue of their distorted sense of self-importance and worth. A child told over and over that it is beautiful – or smart or strong -- will come to believe it. Those words will become fact in that person’s mind. And how unfortunate that it is if those words are not true, or if those words weaken the impulse to strive and improve.
In life, it doesn’t matter what you think, it matters what is. And it is far better to teach a child to work and strive, to give it expectations and standards, than to smother it in ridiculous self-esteem schemes.
The person who does what he knows is right will feel good about himself. The person who does his best will feel good about himself. The person who knows how to work and take a task to completion will feel good about himself.
Guilt and disappointment – the opposites of self-esteem – are the consequence of bad choices and personal failures. They can’t be chased away with pep talks and meaningless honors, they can only be replaced by making better choices and by replacing failure with success. The key to self-esteem, therefore, is making right choices and achieving.
So the key to helping young people have happy, balanced lives is teaching them to make right choices and to achieve.
That is the road to true self-esteem.
Tell your children that you love them. When they have done something which shows true effort, integrity and persistence, tell them that you are proud of them. Teach them that they are children of God. Help them learn that when they do what’s right and when they do their best they will feel good and be happy, but when they don’t, they won’t. Let them know that they have the power to decide whether they will have happy or unhappy lives.
And forget this self-esteem nonsense.
It is a misguided philosophy with catastrophic consequences.