THE OVEREMPHASIS ON SELF-ESTEEM Series: WEEK OF THE YOUNG CHILD
Eder, Rebecca A., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
Wherever they turn, parents are bombarded with information about the importance of self-esteem. It is as if self-esteem is some fortress to be built to protect our children and render them invulnerable from life's problems. Most of what parents learn about self-esteem are myths that are harmful for healthy development in individuals, relationships and society.
Myth 1: Self-esteem plays a significant role in virtually every sphere of a child's development and functioning. (Behavioral and Developmental Pediatrics 1995).
Self-esteem is too general a concept to be useful in understanding the large range of normal differences in children's self concepts and social behaviors. Some children are very sociable and have many friends, others are more solitary and have one best friend. Some children enjoy risks; others are more cautious. All of these children are average to above in self-esteem. Myth 2: Low self-esteem is one of the major challenges we face in children. (California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility 1990). Most children score average to above average on self-esteem measures. The relatively small percentage of children whose self-esteem scores are low feel different from the perceived norm. For example, African-American children in a predominantly white class, children with learning disabilities and children with depression tend to score lower than average on self-esteem measures. When the factors that cause children to feel different are addressed successfully, children's self-esteem increases. When children with undiagnosed learning disabilities are told their school problems may stem from a disability, these children realize that their difficulties are not due to their stupidity or laziness and suddenly score higher on self-esteem. If one were to diagnose and treat the low self-esteem, the child's learning disability would remain. Myth 3: Self-esteem is related to school performance. Whereas some studies may report a connection between school grades and self-esteem, an extensive review of the research literature does not show that self-esteem can predict school performance (grades, athletic success, completing high school). Myth 4: Self-esteem is important to understanding the functioning of c hildren with social and emotional problems. Young children with low self-esteem are thought to have or be at risk for emotional, behavior and/or conduct problems and be at risk for drug and alcohol abuse. But low self-esteem does not help identify particular mental-health problems. Knowing that a child has low self-esteem simply tells us that something is not right. Recall, a child with low self-esteem may be mentally retarded, have a learning disability, be depressed, have an eating disorder or a host of other issues. For example, two first graders scored equally low in self-esteem. Both girls agreed with statements such as "I don't like myself." One of the girls, Mary, also says she likes to tease others and hits people when she is mad. The other girl, Susie, says she doesn't think it's fun to tease others and is quiet when she is mad. These children feel very differently about the world, are responded to differently by other people and require different interventions. Children with average to high self-esteem can also have substantial mental- health problems. For example, children with conduct problems and/or delinquent behaviors often have average to high self-esteem. Adolescent and adult sociopaths tend to score higher on self-esteem measures than anyone. After all, it is easy to love yourself if you don't know or care about how you've harmed others. Myth 6: Good parenting results in children with high self-esteem, and bad parenting results in children with low self-esteem. This myth may have some truth for some children with average to high self-esteem, however, it is untrue when applied to children with low self-esteem. Since many different types of problems can be responsible for low self-esteem, it is very wrongheaded to blame parenting. Children with learning disabilities often show low self-esteem. We do not blame the parents for learning disabilities. It is foolish to hold them responsible for the low self-esteem. Myth 7: More is better. Based on this myth, parents, teachers, health-care providers and clergy have become obsessed with the importance of fostering high self-esteem in young children. Everyone has learned how to focus on the positive and ignore the negative; to provide "positive reframes" for what used to be called negative behaviors. In doing this, we are telling our children that we are not concerned with how they really feel, or what they really do as long as their self-esteem is high. Over the past 10 years, I have studied the development of young children's self-concepts and have tested more than 300 children between the ages of 3 and 8. The results demonstrate quite clearly that even very young children have complex psychological concepts of themselves. For example, by 3 years of age, children already demonstrate three distinct concepts of self. One of these is self-worth (i.e., self-esteem), the second is self-control (i.e., the degree to which they feel in control of themselves and events in their lives), the third is the degree to which they feel accepted versus rejected by others. These concepts are completely unrelated, so children who feel low on self-worth may be high or low in self-control and rejection. Recall that first graders Mary and Susie both were low in self-worth, but whereas Mary was low in self-control and tended to lash out when she felt upset, Susie was high in self-control and tended to hold in her feelings. Young children need to develop a healthy connection between their emotions and their behaviors. They need to develop the courage to express their feelings in authentic, constructive ways. They need to develop the capacity for adaptive coping versus denial in handling transitions, traumas and other challenges in life. As parents and mental-health advocates, we want to foster self-concepts that contain real emotions, even if they may include negative feelings. One may dislike self, at times, for good reasons. A wise person (my mother) one said, "If you feel guilty, maybe you should." Only those with sociopathic tendencies can maintain high self-esteem when they have harmed others. Fostering authentic self-concepts enables parents to help even young children learn to select contexts in which they are likely to be successful. This can be accomplished without having to constantly evaluate whether a child's self-concept is "good" or "bad." A child who is somewhat low in self-control may become a good comedian, is probably fun to have at parties, but would make a very unsuccessful spy! Children who are high in self-control are often valued by their teachers for their exemplary behavior, but should probably not become stand-up comedians or improvisational musicians! The strongest foundation upon which to build relationships is respect, honesty and trust. Without these qualities, social interactions will always merely be a game two people play. Parents who continuously provide false praise to their young children, simultaneously communicate that honesty, respect and trust are not valued in the family. It is important for parents to model respect, honesty and trust in their own relationship so that their children can go on to forge satisfying relationships. Fostering inflated self concepts results in a culture in which everyone colludes in denying societal problems by acting like eveything is fine. This creates a culture where, at best, "I'm OK, you're OK" is the norm; and at worse sociopathic and delinquent behavior is sanctioned. In either case, this type of culture allows smaller and larger injustices to occur without challenge. It is critical to the well-being of our society that there always be individuals who speak out against injustices. Promoting authentic concepts of self takes courage, but results in healthy individuals, relationships and societies. It is time for those of us concerned with the well-being of children to stop building the fortress of self-esteem and to begin to foster self-concepts that reflect realities rather than myths about children's world and their place in it.…
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Publication information: Article title: THE OVEREMPHASIS ON SELF-ESTEEM Series: WEEK OF THE YOUNG CHILD. Contributors: Eder, Rebecca A. - Author. Newspaper title: St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO). Publication date: April 17, 1997. Page number: 7B. © 2008 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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