The Fruits of Overdeveloped Self-Esteem

A recent report on MSNBC suggested that parents’ pre-occupation with their kids’ self-esteem may have produced “rude” children who lack compassion for others.

According to MSNBC, “many experts say today’s kids are ruder than ever.” The word “rude” encompasses a variety of behaviors, from selfishness to deliberate malice. In one example, a pre-schooler deliberately tripped a woman in a crowded restaurant and then bragged to her mother about it. In another, a child continuously insults his mother in front of his mortified grandmother.

In both cases, the parent neither says nor does anything.

Apparently, these aren’t isolated instances. A 2005 Yale University study found that “preschool students are expelled at a rate more than three times that of children in grades K-12 because of behavioral problems.”

It isn’t only preschoolers. The media has documented the behavior in the workplace of those born between 1980 and 1996. Words used to describe the behavior of the so-called “Generation Y” include “self-centered” and “arrogant.” As one management professor put it, “They don’t know when to shut up.” And having grown up questioning their parents, they now question their bosses.

Whether or not today’s kids are actually “ruder than ever,” the article and others like it reflect the sense that something has gone wrong in the way we raise our children. Specifically, it has to do with “popular parenting movements focusing on self-esteem.”

These movements produce parents who “[respond] with hostility to anyone they perceive as getting in the child’s way.” By “getting in the child’s way,” they mean doing anything that might make the child feel less-than-wonderful about him or herself—in the classroom, among their peers, or on the playing field.

So today we have a generation of children who believe that the world revolves around them and that they are entitled to feel good about themselves.

Expecting children raised this way to be compassionate or even polite betrays a profound ignorance of human nature—the same ignorance that led to the “popular parenting movements” that created the mess in the first place.

These movements were inspired by the ideas of Romantic Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. According to Rousseau, “There is no original perversity in the human heart.” So, he says, “when children’s wills are not spoiled by our fault, children [desire] nothing uselessly.” So parents and teachers should strive to produce children who are “authentic, self-sufficient, and autonomous.”

According to E.D. Hirsch, this Romantic ideal that “each person has a natural and uniquely divine spark, which, if nurtured, cannot go wrong,” is behind the emphasis on self-esteem. The problem, as Hirsch points out, is that there is no proven connection between high self-esteem and actual achievement.

In other words, feeling good about yourself isn’t enough to make you good. You have to be taught right from wrong and made to feel bad when you deserve it. As the Scripture says, true parental devotion includes the willingness to correct our children.

The alternative isn’t “authenticity”—it’s spoiling their wills in the worst possible way.

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  • DRF

    Oh do not get me started on the self-esteem movement. The sad part is that the perceptive kids realize that they shouldn’t be praised for every little thing and then end up with no sense of accomplishment when they do do something praiseworthy.

    However, Rousseau is mistaken. There is plenty of natural selfishness and aggression in the human heart, just as there is natural empathy and altrusism. We must simply teach children when it is and is not appropriate to act on it.

    As for Generation Y in the workplace, the bosses need to wise up. Good or bad, Generation Y is what they have to work with. “I should only have to tell my employee what I want once,” is a reasonable expectation, but I’ve seen too many people who expect, “I shouldn’t have to tell my employee what I want AT ALL.” Telepathy only exists in novels and movies. Boomers and Xers weren’t born knowing the ways of the workplace. They were taught by bosses and older coworkers.

  • Lucky Mom of 7

    I have a friend in management in a big company. She said that the younger people have to be seriously counseled about dressing professionally. Our new nurse practitioner has worn a tank top dress and flip flops in the pediatrician’s office. This behavior comes across as arrogance to me…like there is no need to make an impression. It seems like entitlement. It’s a real turn off.