The Truth About Self Esteem
We all decry the social epidemics of our time. Experts warn of the increase in drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and even more terrifying, the recent upsurge in children killing children, as well as the overall rise of violence on our streets and in our schools.
The epidemic that we might not have the awareness to decry is the personal, and social, epidemic that supports and feeds the rest: entitlement.
In the past three decades the United States has seen a three hundred percent increase in adolescent suicide and a thousand percent increase in adolescent depression. Why?
Some say our children are suffering from a lack of self-esteem;
others argue that the “self-esteem” movement itself is in fact one of the culprits.
In this article, I will dissect and carefully examine this characteristic called “self-esteem” and explore both sides of a national debate around this psychological construct.
Authentic self-esteem deserves more serious research and ongoing dialogue. We need to ask, “What is self-esteem?”
“Is the way we are defining self-esteem, understanding it, teaching it, and inspiring its growth in our children, working?”
We need to find ways to use objective research in developing strategies that aid children in growing into happy, respectful, contributing human beings who can share in the responsibilities and pleasures of living in an emotionally intelligent, compassionate, inclusive society.
This national debate about what self-esteem is and isn’t, and how we believe it impacts our children’s behaviors and choices for their lives, will identify holes in our current self-esteem philosophies where entitlement can take root and grow unhindered. This essential debate is positive because it forces us to carefully dissect this vital attribute and define it more clearly.
Most studies on self-esteem have correlated the social epidemics we refer to at the beginning of this article to the breakdown of family and community support systems used to nurture healthy self-esteem. Although perspectives on how to strengthen and supplement these support systems may vary, most parents, educators, counselors, and community leaders believe that developing healthy, authentic self-esteem in our youth is one of our most effective and promising means of preventing destructive behavior.
However, the actual psychological construct self-esteembegs confusion. Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionarydefines “self-esteem” in two ways:
1. belief in oneself; self-respect
2. undue pride in oneself
As you can see, the definitions are not the same. One creates an environment for success, the other an environment for disillusionment and failure.
In the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Lauren Slater wrote an article in February 2004 titled “The Trouble with Self-Esteem.” Slater claims that the main objective of school self-esteem programs is “to dole out huge heapings of praise, regardless of actual accomplishment.” As you can see, Slater is working off of the second definition from Webster’s.
If there is even a small minority of teachers or parents who believe that doling out heaped praise, regardless of any accomplishment, is the way to successfully build their children’s self-esteem, it is imperative that we, as advocates for families and children, take the time to evaluate, understand, and dissect current strategies and then clarify what practices best aid children in building an authentic sense of value and self-worth.
Experts and advocates for the “self-esteem movement” believe that it continues to represent the cutting edge in cultivating healthy people and healthy communities. Moreover, they believe it represents our most promising and effective means of building social capital and developing sustainable solutions to our most persistent societal problems.
In 1998, assemblyman John Vasconcellos charged the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility to lead a public study to investigate whether healthy, authentic self-esteem correlates with various troubling behaviors including violence, drug abuse, welfare dependency, and school failure. In its 1998 report, the task force formulated its definition of “self-esteem,” based on two years of research, public polling, and expert deliberation, as “our capacity to appreciate our own worth and importance, to be accountable for ourselves, and to act responsibly toward others.” As you can see, this definition flows out of the first definition from Webster’sbut adds two vital actions to the dictionary definitions. The Webster’sdefinitions are based simply on a feeling or belief held by a person.
The task force’s definition calls for action—calls for a person to be personally accountableand to act responsibly toward others.This definition not only better serves our children and our hopes for them, but also succeeds in balancing the first word in this two-word construct: self.The definition developed by the task force alters the focus of self-esteem from that of a feelingand morphs it into a foundation.
Self-esteem, when encouraged as simply a feeling, fails children.
Feelings are fickle. Self-esteem must be encouraged as a foundation of a child’s character, supported by actions and choices that prove the child’s value to him or herself.
The only way to develop authentic self-esteem is to earn it.
No amount of praise can create it. Only by taking actions that a child believes have value can the seed of self-esteem be nurtured. This seed then grows into character. Exploring how to build self-esteem as a foundation based on actions that build a child’s sense of worth should be the new focus—foundation instead of feelings.
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