Are We Pushing Our Kids Into a Self-Esteem Trap?

by Donna Volpitta

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Recently, MSNBC did a segment on education and the growing realization that academic ability is less likely to predict future success than qualities such as perseverance and resilience.

In the segment, they showed a clip from one of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits: You Can Do Anything.  The skit is a parody of the self-esteem movement, in which kids receive trophies for showing up, are showered with unearned praise, and are generally not held accountable for high standards. 

In her book, The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Kids in an Age of Self-Importance, Polly Young Eisendrath, points to the increase in young adults who are finding themselves unhappy and unfulfilled, despite being raised by very supportive parents. 

She concludes that the rise of the self-esteem movement has been detrimental because it misses the point: satisfaction is derived from working hard to accomplish something. 

We are seeing the pendulum swing back.  Everyday it seems the media has a story about the need to teach kids “grit.”  What does that mean?

Know When to Praise

It is significantly more helpful to praise effort than accomplishments or innate ability.  Studies have shown that when kids are complimented on their ability (“You are so smart!”), it is not only not helpful, it is detrimental to their future efforts. 

Instead, parents can ask questions about the process and effort that a child makes.  They will feel more important and satisfied when they explain how hard they worked.  Then, you can say, “Wow- you have been working really hard on that and it shows.” But remember, only say this when they actually have been working hard!

Be Realistic with Criticism

Second, parents can begin to talk to their kids and give them a realistic understanding of things that come more easily to them and things that they need to work harder on. 

In her book, Young Eisendrath found that these young adults were moving back home because they did not believe that they should be required to start at an entry level position because they had been told for so long that they were so “special.” Being realistic means having an understanding of the work necessary to be successful and have the humility to accept feedback.

("If you think you're talented, then you are!")

Why is this advice so difficult?  Because we are hardwired to believe that our own kids are awesome.  While each child is a miracle and very special in their own way, we don't need to praise their every move.  If we teach them that they don't have to work hard to acheive things, we are not doing them any favors.

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