All of us need to do a much better job of helping our children develop healthy self-esteem. Parents especially need to be mindful of this. And that doesn’t mean giving our children ego-boosts all the time. Rather, it means helping them develop a properly balanced sense of self-worth. Years ago, based on years of case study, I developed some ideas about this. And I advanced them in my books Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing. In recent years, empirical research has been validating those notions. Healthy, balanced self-esteem doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of careful nuturing. We have to cultivate a sense of self-worth in a mindful, balanced way. That’s the “third commandment” of sound character development. (See also: Keeping a Balanced Sense of Self-Worth.)
How to Raise Children with Balanced Self-Esteem
In my upcoming book with Dr. Kathy Armistead, The 10 Commandments of Character: How to Lead a Significant Life, I explain what both years of clinical experience and scientific evidence is now telling us about how to help our children develop a healthy sense of self-worth. For years, “pop psychology” told us some very wrong things about self-esteem. For one thing, it told us we couldn’t praise our kids enough. But it turns out, we can indeed praise them far too much. Moreover, if we praise them for the wrong things, they can even develop an unhealthily inflated sense of self.
As a society, we need to direct more attention and admiration in the right places. We need to focus less much on the beautiful and talented among us and more on those who humbly accept and honor the duty to use their gifts for the greater good. Of course, this goes against the trend of modern culture. We have to reverse this trend. And parents need to moderate the degree to which they tell their children how bright they are or what beautiful blue eyes they have. The child had absolutely nothing to do with these accidental attributes. Comments like that may boost their self-esteem but don’t contribute to self-respect or healthy self-regard. Besides, if parents focus too much on that kind of attention and praise of that kind on a child, it can actually help inflate their egos. Parents need to do a better job of recognizing and rewarding the main things a person can really take credit for: effort and responsible action. It’s the noble things our kids do, especially when it’s tough, and even in the little “trials” of everyday life that we should really praise them for. Children face “tests of character” all the time. And they need to be recognized and encouraged for every effort they make to exemplify decency of character. That’s the very heart of merit, and all meritorius conduct is worth reinforcing.
Here’s why we should praise our children for the efforts they make, not for accidents of nature like physical qualities or innate talents. While many still promote the notion that we must praise our children strongly and often if they’re ever to build a robust and healthy sense of self, in recent years, there’s been a turning of the tide in the prevailing opinions about self-esteem and how a healthy sense of identity develops, thanks to some new research. According to lead author, Eddie Brummelman, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam the Netherlands, it turns out you can actually praise little Johnny or Debbie far too much. His research shows that telling their children they are special can actually result in narcissism and not healthy self-esteem. Co-author Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University says that the difference between narcissists and those with a healthy sense of self is that “people with high self-esteem think they’re as good as others, whereas narcissists think they’re better than others.” Going overboard with the praise can have the unintended result of inflating a child’s ego, perhaps even fostering narcissism in their character development. “People with high self-esteem think they’re as good as others, whereas narcissists think they’re better than others,” Bushman said. Moreover, some other recent findings by the same principal researchers published on the American Psychological Association’s website suggest that praising kids for the wrong things (e.g., their personal attributes) can also have some significantly negative consequences.
My clinical case study research also seems to point to the same conclusions. The young narcissists with whom I work often received — and readily conferred upon themselves — mounds of praise for their innate talents, abilities, and physical qualities from parents, friends, and others. And because these are incontrovertibly accidents of nature, that meant that these kids were giving themselves credit for things that they couldn’t legitimately take full credit for. As a result of these observations, I also came to believe that when kids prize themselves too highly for their personal attributes as opposed to how they’ve used the resources they’ve been given for the greater good, their self-esteem may indeed be high (perhaps even unhealthily high) they don’t necessarily develop legitimate self-respect. In fact, according to Eddie Brummelman and colleagues, praising children for their personal qualities (e.g., intelligence, looks, athletic talent, etc.) as opposed to their efforts is not only unhealthy, it’s quite risky. Why? Because kids who pride themselves too much on their abilities can all too easily get down on themselves when they fail in some way to achieve at a level they’ve come to expect.
Many years have passed since I first gathered the case study data on self-esteem development, and I’ve witnessed hundreds of examples of how young persons can develop a self-image that is unhealthy and out of balance. Remember, not all self-love is unhealthy. People have to have a certain amount of love for themselves to maintain appropriate self-boundaries, but too much tips the scales making individuals act as though they are the only ones who matter. As I point out in The Judas Syndrome, even the “Golden Rule” points to this. Doing unto others as we want others to do unto us means that to care for others involves a degree, but not an overdose, of self-love. Narcissism, at its core, is pathological self-love. And it develops in some interesting ways, which I’ll be talking about in the wrap-up post on the “third commandment” next week.
Character Matters will again be a live program this Sunday evening at 7 pm EDT (6 pm CDT), so I can take your phone calls at (718) 717-8296. I’m happy to have you join the discussion if you have a question to ask, a story you want to share, or just a thought or two on our times and the character issues our relationships increasingly face.