When Bad Kids Think They're GreatCAROL MILSTONE
There is a fine line between high self-esteem and conceit, and probably no one knows this better than Case Western Reserve University (Ohio) psychologist Roy Baumeister, who has studied the effects — in fact, the dangers — of high self-esteem.
In his influential 1996 academic article subtitled The Dark Side of High Self-esteem, Baumeister and colleagues point to studies showing that high — not low — self-esteem is at the heart of many acts of aggression and hostility against others.
So what are parents who are trying to raise their kids to love themselves — but not love themselves to much — to do? This was the question Baumeister answered at the recent annual convention of the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C.
Q. What is self-esteem?
Self-esteem is how favourably a person thinks and feels about him-or herself. It's a global value judgement that's centered on how much you like yourself.
Q. What does it mean to have high self-esteem?
People with high self-esteem generally think that they are better than other people; that they are excellent at many things; that they are likeable, competent, attractive, and the sort of people whom others would like to be around. And they often have many strong and clear opinions about what they believe are there many good qualities.
People with low self-esteem, on the other hand, tend to feel unsure about themselves, or think that maybe some people like them, some don't. It's not necessarily that they dislike themselves, or think of themselves as bad or incompetent.
Q. Is it important to raise children with high self-esteem?
No. Self-esteem does not really accomplish all that much. It is an asset, for sure, as a way to make yourself feel good. I think of high self-esteem as an emotional resource, as a "stock" of good feelings. It comes in handy once in a while. If something bad happens, or you get discouraged, then it helps you to bounce back, and makes you more resilient.
On the other hand, extremely high self-esteem — and, in particular, narcissism — can be self-defeating and harmful to others.
Narcissism is associated with a sense of superiority over others, a feeling of entitlement, of deserving special treatment just because of who you are, and grandiose fantasies about oneself — thinking you are better than you actually are, and thinking that you are better than other people.
Simply thinking that you are good at things that you truly are good at is not a problem. But to think you are good when you're not — as with the narcissist — is dangerous when it's unfounded, exaggerated, and unstable.
Q. In your view, is there a healthier alternative to promoting high self-esteem in children?
Instead of high self-esteem, I believe in promoting contingent self-esteem. This means that your self-esteem actually reflects your achievements. So if your child does something good, then she should be told that it's good and be given recognition for it.
Problems occur when children are told that they are great no matter what they do — because the parents are afraid that they'll damage their kids' self-esteem if they point out what they did is bad. This is what creates narcissism. We are starting to see kids who were raised this way entering college, and they are a pain to deal with. They often think that they are entitled to an A, for example, which we didn't see so much in the past. They believe they're good even when they're not.
It is much better to have self-esteem that is contingent on genuine achievements. So you set the rules, reward the child when the child does well, punish the child when he or she does badly. If you enforce the rules consistently, the child will learn to live by them, and that is what produces a healthier, contingent self-esteem.
In fact, my advice is to forget about self-esteem and concentrate on teaching your children self-control. Self-control over emotions and behavior has been shown to be much more effective than high self-esteem in making people successful throughout their lives.
Don't give in to tantrums. Don't capitulate when the child is impulsive. We often see parents today giving in to their child who cries and screams — precisely when they should not be giving in. Instead, make the child control him or herself, and then reward that control.
Q. Any other mistakes, concerning self-esteem, that today's parents are making?
Rewarding their kids too often — in a sense, giving everyone a trophy. This promotion of self-esteem doesn't actually foster healthy self-esteem in kids. It just gives them the message that rewards are meaningless, and they are entitled to be treated well regardless of what they do. That's not a good message to learn and it's not adaptive for life.
I also think that today's popular emphasis on self-esteem makes parents afraid to criticize children, or to discipline them, and that's also a huge mistake. Discipline is only wrong when it is harsh and out of proportion to what they've done wrong. Healthy self-esteem comes from knowing the rules and living up to them. It doesn't come from parents giving the message that everything they do is fine — that just breeds a little narcissist who is heading for trouble later on.
Q. How did so many of today's well-meaning parents become, in your view, so misguided?
This probably came up because back in the 1940s and '50s, the grandparents and parents of today's parents were afraid of spoiling their children, so they seldom said anything nice to them. Some of today's parents think back to this and say how they "never heard anything nice from my mother", or "I kept hoping to hear something positive from my father." This goes back to the Puritan tradition, which obviously was not good. But in correcting this problem, I think we went to the opposite extreme — that parents should always be positive and gushing with their kids. And clearly, that's not good, either.
Carol Milstone, "When Bad Kids Think They're Great." National Post, (Canada) 23, March, 1999.
Reprinted with permission of the Carol Milstone.
Carol Milstone has a Ph.D. in psychology and is a regular contributor in education and psychology for the National Post.
Copyright © 2001 Carol Milstone
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