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Fame, Fortune and the Fallacy of Self-Esteem

Listening to musicIt’s that time of year! It’s the blind auditions for The Voice. Of course, my 13-year-old rushes through her homework and begs to watch it. I admit The Voice is entertaining. It takes the old talent formula one step farther by not having a visual of the contestants—to rule out the entrenched cultural biases on appearance, beauty, style and stage presence. It’s supposed to be a more fair approach—and in some ways it is.

But the end game is the same. People win and lose.

Hey, I don’t mean to be a party pooper. Or, as my daughter likes to tout every once in a while, “Gee, Mom, don’t rain on my parade!”

The Cost of Fame

But here goes my rant. We have come to a moment in our culture where the most important value cited by many preteens, according to one survey by the Children’s Digital Media Center at UCLA, is: Being Famous. We are now a culture of ranking, rating, and rewards. The current generation of young adults is referred to as Generation Me. It is the most narcissistic group since researchers have assessed personality traits in the population. And each younger generation is more self-absorbed than the preceding one. Some argue that American’s obsession with self-esteem has gone too far.

Now, I have to admit as a shrink, I believe it has.

We want our children to feel special, worthy and to succeed. We want to protect them from harm’s way, from disappointment and failure. These are important values. In fact, school systems and coaching programs have instituted self-esteem programs in their curriculums and personal development approaches. My girls both have so many ribbons just for showing up to dance or camp or whatever. In fact, kids today grow up accumulating a lot of stars, stickers, and plastic medals. But at what cost?

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem is a global self-evaluation of one’s worth.

It is a self-judgment. Our culture has fostered a belief system, which has trickled down into many educational venues, that by handing out rewards we will boost children’s self-esteem. This is in part in as reaction to previous parenting approaches that were authoritarian and punishment-oriented. But we’ve gone to the other extreme. Our culture has constructed messages and programs around the notion that we must protect children from experiences of failure. As a result, children learn that self-worth is based on how well they do at something (or not).

I regret not having my girls in the Brownies or Girls Scouts. Earning badges for actually learning a skill by working independently or in a group is a worthy endeavor. I did it as a kid. Many of my female friends did, too. That was before Title IX and all the wonderful opportunities for girls’ sports programs came into being (of which my daughters have benefited). But still.

My most profound experience was when I was 18 and on a leadership course where I had to lead a disgruntled group of my peers – across the Masai Mara in Kenya. I had to learn to deal with conflict, confront bullies, read a topical map (no GPS), and instill a sense of collaboration with others. I was scared S@#$less. But it was a defining experience. The reward? Getting to our destination with no calamities, with enough supplies, and group brainpower.

Self-esteem programs by and large are not correlated with positive outcomes. The very premise is wrong. The problem in part is how people measure “self esteem” – using by a measure which is global in nature (Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale) – which assesses feelings of confidence without assessing how or why a person feels that way.

There are just as many bullies, criminals and prejudiced people with high-self esteem as there are with low self-esteem. The only consistent correlation is that people with high self-esteem tend to also report feeling happier.

Our culture has gotten it backwards. Self-esteem doesn’t foster success and achievement. It’s the other way around. Learning by trial and error, and in fact through failures and disappointments—and overcoming them—is what helps a child develop the grit, resilience, and stick-to-it-ness that leads to a sense of self worth. Self-compassion researcher, Kristen Neff, writes about the problem with the concept of self-esteem:

High self-esteem is NOT associated with being a better person, just with thinking you are!

The Benefit of Failure

We need to let our kids fail, make mistakes, and then learn to deal with the consequences, repair the mistakes, and learn from the experience. Better to let this happen within the support and understanding of family, friends, and teachers, rather than on the public stage (which is where many kids want to be in order prove themselves and most will never get there). The healthy path to self-esteem is not to use indiscriminant praise and prizes. Children come to believe they deserve praise and admiration no matter what they do. Rather, our role is helping our children feel worthy because of who they are, such as the kindness they bestow, problem solving skills, creativity, and the courage they have.  These are moments that occur in the small acts of daily living in which children are connected to—and in service—to one another.

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