I Don't Care About My Child's Self-Esteem

Before you call Child Protective Services or lambast me for being a cold, heartless mom, hear me out.

Self-Esteem is highly overrated.  Not only is it not all that important, but it’s actually been shown to be detrimental to our overall well-being and the well-being of society.  And I could spend this post showing all the studies that have shown this, but I’d rather move on.  You can certainly see the works of Roy Baumeister, Nicholas Emler, Martin Seligman, Jean Twenge, and Kristin Neff to learn more.  But, ultimately, here’s what they’ve found.

The self-esteem movement that really picked up speed during the 1980’s focuses on accomplishments, abilities, and feeling good.  This is not helpful.  The aim was to improve feelings of self-worth and help individuals avoid the pitfalls of unhelpful life choices.  The aim was to decrease anxiety and depression.

The result has been to increase anxiety and depression.  The result has been to sugar-coat our child’s mistakes and give everyone a trophy.  The result has been to coddle and praise unhelpful things.  Narcissism has increased.  Feelings of self-worth have become conditional on accomplishments.  The movement has contributed to perfectionism and social comparison.

In short, high self-esteem is not really all that helpful. 

Sure, it can provide fleeting moments of pleasant emotion, but don’t we want our kids to have a bit more than that?  And, don’t we want our kids to be able to make mistakes without those mistakes defining their worth or emotional state?  Don’t we want our kids to know that they are loveable and worthwhile simply because they exist and not because of what they accomplish?  And, I don’t know about you, but the thought of my children growing up to be overly narcissistic makes me cringe.

I want my kids to know their strengths and their limitations.  I want them to feel comfortable knowing who they are.  I want them to be willing to take risks and know that they are no less worthwhile if that risk is not successful.  I want them to be willing to hold themselves accountable and to be able to accept constructive criticism and correction openly.  Building self-esteem does none of these things.

Instead, I follow the research of Dr. Kristin Neff and the ancient knowledge of multiple worldwide cultures that emphasizes compassion over esteem.  Particularly, self-compassion.

When we think of compassion, we generally think of noticing someone’s suffering and being moved to do something about it.  If we have compassion for the lost child at the grocery store, we notice that she’s lost and we are moved to go up and help her find her parent.  Self-compassion encompasses these same components:  noticing our own suffering and being moved to respond kindly.

Self-compassion has been shown to provide a more solid and consistent feeling of worth.  It has been shown to decrease depression and anxiety.  It has been shown to improve relationships and internal motivation, which allows a self-compassionate person to make wiser life choices.

How do we build self-compassion in ourselves and our kids?  First, we have to be mindfully accepting of all our experiences.  We cannot be moved to respond to pain if we do not see the pain.  We must allow ourselves to feel suffering, hurt, anger, frustration, the consequences of making a mistake.  And we must experience these things without judgment.  It isn’t good or bad to feel sad.  It isn’t good or bad to make a mistake. 

Second, we must recognize that we are not alone in mistake-making or painful experiences.  This is part of our humanity.  Every single being that walks this planet has made mistakes.  Every single human has experienced heartache.  Every single parent has yelled at their child or been less attentive or needed to lock themselves in the bedroom/bathroom to have just a few moments without a small person tugging at their arm.  It does not make us a bad person.  It makes us human.

And finally, we must respond with kindness.  Practice kind words.  Imagine what you’d say to a friend who was in a similar situation and say those same things to yourself.  Most of us would not say to a friend who was grieving over the loss of a loved one, “You really should be over this by now.  What is wrong with you that you can’t just move on?!  You shouldn’t feel sad or angry!  Seriously!  What the heck is wrong with you?!”  And yet, our minds can spin these nasty messages several times an hour.  Be kind.

So, no.  I do not care about my child’s self-esteem.  But, I certainly want them to be self-compassionate.