Self Esteem’s Slippery Slope
4 mins read

Self Esteem’s Slippery Slope

A friend spent the summer teaching his son to tie his shoelaces.  It took all of July and half of August.  It required endless patience and persistence.  As we all know, it is not easy to learn to tie your shoes, nor is it easy to teach it. 

However, my son’s friend is 14.  A completely normal 14-year-old boy who had never learned to tie his own shoes.

On the first day of school, my seventh grade daughter brought home a new friend.  My daughter asked for $3 to buy chips at the corner grocery, a place she has been going to alone since she was five.  It is six townhouses away.  Perhaps 300 feet.  You do not cross a street or a single driveway to get there.  The owners know every member of our family.  The trip to the market and back takes four minutes tops.

The friend said she couldn’t go.  Her mom would get mad at her, she explained on our threshold.  She is not allowed to go to the store – any store – by herself.  She is 12 years old.  She lives in a neighborhood that is nearly 100% crime-free, where the loudest gripes stem from dog owners who don’t scoop their poop.

Do you remember your daily life when you were 12 or 14?  I rode my bike three miles to school along busy roads.  I babysat for other children.  I walked dogs in the neighborhood park by myself every day after school – and I walked to and from school by myself as well. When I was 14 my parents let me take an Amtrak train from Washington D.C. to New York City to visit a friend from camp – by myself.  New York City!

My friend explained why his 14-year-old son did not know how to tie his laces.  When the boy first started wearing shoes, my friend bought him Velcro sneakers.  It made his son feel more independent, he explained.  More self-confident.  His son felt like a big boy putting on his own shoes every day.  It was also easier on my friend, as well as his son’s babysitters and teachers, to not have to teach a four year old to tie a butterfly knot.

Great all around, right?  Except that, as a ninth grader, this six foot tall young man did not know how to tie his own shoelaces.  How’s that for a confidence boost?

I know the mom of my daughter’s friend is similarly well-meaning.  She wants to protect her daughter from the evils of the world as long as she can.  She works more than full-time hours in a demanding, high pressure job.  She cannot be home to oversee her daughter’s every move.  Instead she substitutes by making rigid, blanket rules her daughter is terrified not to follow.

I worry about this child once she grows up and her mom’s rules no longer apply to her life.

Self-esteem is a tricky asset to develop.  It’s slope can curve upward – or straight down.  Esteem is oddly fragile and easy to destroy, especially in children, and harder to rebuild than to tear down.  Strangely, esteem does not come from success – easy victories can make people more insecure, arrogant, and even paranoid. True self-reliance does not come from never making a mistake.  It doesn’t come from being praised over accomplishments that are not truly meaningful, like memorizing the alphabet at age two or Velcroing your sneakers or following empty rules perfectly.

I don’t mean we should expose our children to unwarranted risks or dangers, or neglect kids by granting too much freedom too early in life.  However I wish we all understood exactly how to build a child’s self esteem.  If I had the magic bullet, I’d pass it on to my kids.  I’d tell every parent, therapist, teacher and caregiver I know.  Sadly, it’s much easier to foster, and spot, false self-confidence than it is to build true assurance.

But we keep trying.

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