A million self-help books, magazine articles and well-meaning folk have lied to you!
Raising your child’s self-esteem may be harmful!
A couple of years ago I decided I wanted to apply my ideas to the problem of evolving from a teenager to adulthood. So I’ve been spending a lot of time with kids. Kids with issues. Kids that people all agree have low self-esteem, which is at the root of their poor social behaviour and lack of regard for others. And for a long time I’ve observed and noticed that they don’t lack self-esteem. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on what the issue was.
There’s a study of 9 million young people, the American Freshman Survey, which has tracked student’s since 1966. It has found that student’s today rate themselves as being “above average” for academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability and self-confidence.
Other areas such as co-operativeness, empathy and spirituality have seen no real change indicating that what has changed is the Individual’s self-image or actual competence. Yet actual test results indicate a decline in writing ability. Also the amount of study time has reduced despite that claimed increased ability and ‘drive to achieve’.
So how can student’s believe they are of higher ability and more ambitious and yet perform worse and study less?
Psychologist Jean Twenge has pioneered this re-evaluation of self-esteem. She believes based on her research that since 1979, there has been a 30% shift towards more narcissistic attitudes of U.S Students.
If we look in the Oxford English Dictionary it defines narcissism as: “Excessive self-love or vanity; self-admiration, self-centredness.” So we’re getting more self obsessed as a society.
She attributes this to cultural changes in parenting, a celebrity culture, and easy access to credit. In other words life is easier for kids today than at any time in our history. They don’t have to go up chimneys or for the most part do many chores. School’s don’t cane them, clip them round the ear or throw board rubbers at them. They are listened to and in all honesty pampered relative to every other culture and time.
Rewards Without Responsibility
The welfare state, political correctness and health and safety movements in our society has taught that health, wellbeing and happiness is a right, but not their responsibility. Advertisers tell them that ‘they’re worth it’. Peer pressure makes them believe having stuff, gives them social status.
Social media has now put all of these dynamics on steroids. Post that you’re feeling down or ask if you look hot in a new photo and you get an instant hit of attention. However, likes and re-tweets don’t keep you warm at night or nourish your soul.
Most importantly, they don’t change you as a person. If you aren’t getting the results you want in life. If you aren’t feeling how you want… the solution isn’t in wishing, praying or even affirming that you are worth it… the solution is in changing what you are doing, saying or thinking. Better still change your outlook on the world and everything else changes.
It is nice for well-meaning people to give you comfort and platitudes when you are feeling down, but they only make you feel a little better temporarily. Isn’t it better to solve the problem permanently?
The message that kids are taught, is that life is about what they can get. Decades of media influences telling us that kids need positive messages to boost their confidence and self-esteem has led to kids being told that they are good and they did well. Even when they didn’t!
In some ridiculous cases this has led to competition being taken out of sports and so on. Life is Darwinian. We are the product of those who were the fittest and best adapted to survive. Life does not comfort nature’s Losers.
They adapt or die!
It is progress to notice and care that the kid that can’t run gets upset when he loses. And to do something about it is noble and worthwhile. Yet the solution isn’t to change the rules and make an artificial game. All that does is put a protective bubble around the kid that will get burst time and time again because life doesn’t mould itself around your feelings. You have to mould yourself to Life.
The much better solution is to teach the kid a higher understanding of life. We can’t all be great at everything, but we can all be great at something. Help him find his own greatness and teach him to base his self-worth on his own individual blueprint. Let him decide for himself what markers he will use to judge himself and take the responsibility for living up to those standards.
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
The greatest lesson we can learn is that we have the seeds of greatness. Like the seeds of an oak tree, these seeds need nourishing, but they also need something to push against.
The Need To Struggle
The Oak Tree
A mighty wind blew night and day.
It stole the Oak Tree’s leaves away.
Then snapped its boughs and pulled its bark
until the Oak was tired and stark.
But still the Oak Tree held its ground
while other trees fell all around.
The weary wind gave up and spoke,
“How can you still be standing Oak?”
The Oak Tree said, I know that you
can break each branch of mine in two,
carry every leaf away,
shake my limbs and make me sway.
But I have roots stretched in the earth,
growing stronger since my birth.
You’ll never touch them, for you see
they are the deepest part of me.
Until today, I wasn’t sure
of just how much I could endure.
But now I’ve found with thanks to you,
I’m stronger than I ever knew.
by Johnny Ray Ryder Jr.
We need to struggle against something, but equally we need a sense of purpose and meaning behind our struggle. And with little hardship to push against, our children have only their teachers and parents to fight in meaningless battles fighting for the right to leave their clothes on the floor or wear facial piercings.
The Founding Fathers of the U.S enshrined the freedom of all to pursue happiness, but all anyone else can do is allow you to be free to pursue your happiness. The achievement of it, is entirely down to you. Yet time after time, our kids are taught that others shouldn’t do this or that. For the most part they are loved and adored without expectations in a way that is significantly different from any other historical period.
And so they moan and whine about how unfair life is when it doesn’t lay out the red carpet for them. The stark reality is that life is unfair. It always has been and I believe that the imperfections of our world are the perfect environment to enable us to become what we could be. It is our struggles that make us stronger. I love the Butterfly story to remind me of how important the struggles we face are.
What Matters Isn’t What We Get, But What We Give
Life is not about what we have or get. Life is about what we give. The magic, the wonder of life is in its alchemy. Being able to take the crap circumstances you find yourself in and use that to create something positive.
People like Randy Pausch who took terminal cancer as an inspiration to share what he learned with the world.
Or Nick Vujicic born without arms or legs and using what he was given to touch people around the world.
Then there are the Celebrities and Billionaires kids given everything, but lost themselves in a self-destructive spiral of self pity and giving little or nothing.
Meanwhile there are numerous people who live happily in abject poverty, in poor health and who have been given many hardships in life… yet they find their joy in giving to others.
You see, we are life’s valves. The world flows through us, giving us whatever cards we are to be dealt. How pure, open and loving we remain determines what we give. What we give is our output.
So our choice is in whether we remain bitter, vengeful and focused on what the world gives us… or on how we can help and what we can give to others determines how we feel.
What we give to others is what we feel. If we feel hate, jealousy and bitterness for others… we experience those emotions. If we feel love, kindness and understanding for others… we experience those emotions.
So many times religions and well-meaning people have said love others and turn the other cheek because it’s good. I say do it because it’s a pragmatic choice between feeling good and feeling bad.
Why Respect Matters More Than Self-Esteem
Now how does this tie into the whole self-esteem and respect thing?
We’ve got this far without defining self-esteem. I define self-esteem as your personal judgement of how worthy you are. Now what I think the real problem our teenagers face is that they have been brought up on a diet of meaningless platitudes and unearned praise. And so while it might seem that they have ‘low self-esteem’, in fact their self-esteem is pretty high.
However, it is not based on anything solid or meaningful and deep down we know that. It is much like being pumped up by some charismatic motivational speaker or reading a trite self-help book. You feel great, ready to conquer the world and then at the first hurdle all the wind is blown out of your sails because it didn’t change you as a person or prepare you for what was ahead. It just made you feel better about the way things are for a short while.
Part of self-esteem is having respect for yourself. But all of self-esteem is rooted in respect. For me, respect is about having personal standards. Standards of how you will treat people and how you will allow others to treat you.
For if all you ever do, is to treat others as they treat you, does that make you any different than a Pavlovian dog responding to its environmental cues?
We have the ability to respond to the world as we choose and it is this freedom of choice that lets us change the future. We no longer have to be limited to knee jerk responses. Instead we can accept the failings and shortcomings of others and yet still respond according to our personal code.
What we become is not about how others have treated us, but in how we treat others. Equally what we become is not about following rules or cultural etiquette as much as it is about deciding what we value and are prepared to stand up for.
It is in imposing our personal standards on the world that we find what we are and stain the world with our unique presence. Self-esteem is inwardly focused, whereas respect is about interacting with the world.
The Three Key Questions
Ultimately our judgement of ourselves and our personal worthiness is based on how well we answer three critical questions.
Do I love and am I loved?
Do I, and what I do, matter?
Can I make a difference?
When we can answer these three questions positively, we have unshakeable self-esteem. These do not come from a sense of feeling worthy, but from actually being worthy. Because out in the real world we live up to our standards.
Far too much time and attention has been focused on how we feel about ourselves and far too little on setting our own personal standards for how we will accept being treated and how we will treat others. Yet it is in our outward focus of considering and caring for others that we find ourselves. Where we thought we were saving others, we find really we save ourself.
How Will You Solve Your Chocolate Cake Conflict?
As in almost every area of life, there is the chocolate cake conflict.
The Dieter who desperately wants to fit into a dress two sizes below what she is has to choose between short term pain and long term gain.
Does she forego the pleasure of the chocolate cake in order to achieve the harder, yet ultimately more rewarding satisfaction of fitting the dress?
It is easier and far more comfortable to work on feeling better. Yet despite the effort, it is far more rewarding to change your thoughts, words and actions so that you are better. This is what we all need especially teenagers who are trying to make sense of the world and find their place in it. Respect is a better investment of time and effort than self-esteem. Self-esteem comes naturally alongside respect.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where you came from or what has happened, this is the backdrop story setting up the tale of what we become. And we are the Author of that story.