A recent Atlantic article by Lori Gottlieb, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” goes by a different hook on the magazine’s cover: “How the Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining our Kids.”
It’s summer so I’ll keep it brief: fear-driven pitches sell books and magazines but do little to help parents do better with children. The end.
But… if you’ve got a couple of extra minutes we can drill a little deeper. Gottlieb traces the ever-swinging parenting-styles pendulum that proves about as helpful as an Edgar Allen Poe accompaniment to the pit.
The experts tell us that we’re messing up our kids, and then we embrace this year’s new-new panacea. We’re giving too many choices. We’re telling kids they are special when they are not. We are failing to say no and set limits. We are failing to give our kids space to separate from us and learn from a little adversity.
This all rings true. What we don’t get is much help in how to do better as parents. Thus the culture of shame marches on, and we read, and blog, and self-flaggelate and continue competing (and concealing), and the whole thing seems to only continue collapsing upon itself.
When will we have had enough of all this self-involved neuroticism?
The research “shows” that self-esteem has gone up, while actual ability has gone down; further high self-esteem correlates with depression and anxiety.
Could this be a problem of semantics? Firstly, before one can have “esteem” (i.e. opinion, positive or negative) about one’s “self” one must have a self.
Yes, we live in a culture of narcissism, but we generally misunderstand this term. It DOES NOT mean arrogant, it means clueless (for more on this see How is Narcissism like Footed Pajamas?). So… if you ask people if they feel that they are superior to others, and they say that they believe that they are, this means they are either superior to others with good reality-testing or… they are grandiose and overcompensating for core feelings of inadequacy and fear.
However, someone with truly good self-esteem (or at least manners) might not rate themselves as “superior” to others; their gifts might make them gifted, but this would still not make them superior to others. Are we all created equal or not? (and if we are equal as human beings, our SAT score or our income reflects differences but NOT ultimate superiority; and if we really think some people are superior to others, carefully consider the ultimate implications of this idea. Hint… genocide).
Self-report is not a good measure of self-esteem. I find it hard to imagine Einstein saying he thought he was a genius, much less superior to others. I find it hard to imagine Cary Grant or Gregory Peck preening about how handsome they felt they were.
Perhaps what we as a culture lack are manners and a true sense of the group (i.e. we do community service so as to appear socially concerned so as to get in to college because that’s what they want… and so we try to appear that way, and then collapse later under the burden of our own phoniness).
A great unsung hero of early psychology is Alfred Adler who suggested that while we are who we are (in terms of personality), the big differential is whether we express this with, or without, “social interest.” In other words a brilliant potential sleuth can be a robber or a detective, taking one to catch the other, as it were. Thus we can be brilliantly against the group (gifted with low self-esteem) or for it; and even if we’re not all that gifted we can be a petty grifter or a hail fellow well met—and the good egg wins the prize of happiness.
Our kids really are special—it’s accepting that they’re ALL special that separates the Chuas from the glass slippers. Sure, finding out what they are best at doing that can help our kids excel, but even more importantly, it’s helping them understand that whatever gifts they bring (and whatever struggles they face), these can be connected to, and ultimately placed in service of, the group. And by group I mean animals, fish, oceans, etc. and not just other humans (although that would be a decent start).
So, if we parents keep messing up our kids by being unconscious—acting out like children (when mess up in the classic, sloppy, explosive way) or projecting and overprotecting (where we mess up in the over-indulgent, subtly crippling way)—if we really want to do better, for our kids and for each other and each other’s kids, perhaps we need to take a few deep breaths and ask ourselves what we might need in order to grow?
Dealing with our own pain is an excellent place to start. This will help us deal with our kids’ pains and clarify the boundaries between us, rather than fuel the enmeshment leading to precious botched masterpieces. Gottlieb cites Jean Twenge in suggesting that perseverance, resiliency and reality-testing correlate with true success.
Thus as parents let’s not beat ourselves up, nor give up, let’s admit that we’re not perfect and neither are our kids; let’s let go the notion that our kids (or we) will be happy when they get to Harvard or become doctors (but instead bank on the idea that if they find their place in the group and contribute, even at Taco Bell, this may be better for them and for our world than the nightmare we’ve been propagating).
There is plenty of good common sense in Gottlieb’s article… I’m just not sure how much the magazine-selling fear and guilt trumps and obscures the message, eight pages in: “…the truth is, there is no single foolproof recipe for raising a child.”
So, if you are going to push your kid to excel (or “support” them, as we might frame it… and I join you in this, in the service of my kids and all our collective kids), let’s re-frame “excel” to at least include being a positive member of the big group we all already are—for if we are against the ultimate “group,” the zeitgeist of what simply is, we (and our kids) are swimming against the current. Perhaps this helps explain why so many parents seem to be so tired, worried and dour.
The Tao Te Ching says that water, because it prefers low places, is above all things (and can accomplish much, eroding stone over time). So… last one in the collective pool is a rotten egg (and a sour grape).