For two kids who share so much of their DNA, my children couldn’t be more different in their displays of self-confidence. My 7-year-old recently got toothpaste on her dress while brushing her teeth, and in response, she burst into tears, dropped to the floor, and rolled around screaming, “I’m the worst person ever!” My 10-year-old, however, acts as though his knowledge already surpasses that of Albert Einstein. Whenever we point out that he’s wrong about something, he disagrees, as if the number of moons orbiting Jupiter is a matter of opinion. Sometimes I wonder if my daughter’s self-esteem is too low and my son’s is too high. How important is having the right amount of self-esteem? Does the right amount even exist?
As an American parent, I’ve always assumed that having a healthy amount of self-esteem is crucial for my kids’ well-being. Once that’s secure, the thinking goes, everything else will just fall into place. This idea is such a given that when I was researching my book, How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes, one of my good friends—also a parenting journalist—advised me to make my first chapter about self-esteem.
But as I dug into the research, I learned that many American parents have been woefully overvaluing and misunderstanding the concept. Having healthy self-esteem does not ensure that kids will fare well or stay out of trouble. And although self-esteem is a tricky concept to study, research suggests that the steps parents take to foster self-esteem in their kids often have the paradoxical effect of undermining it. Our over-the-top efforts to ensure that kids feel valued and adored can actually make them feel inept—whereas intentionally exposing our kids to disappointment and failure, which so many parents are loath to do, can give children a satisfying sense of self-efficacy.
For decades, Americans have been a little obsessed with the concept of self-esteem, a measure of how much confidence and value people feel they have. In 1986, the governor of California, George Deukmejian, signed legislation that created the Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility, which concluded that boosting Californians’ collective levels of self-esteem would lower rates of crime, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, welfare dependency, and school underachievement. The task force’s final report referred to self-esteem as a “social vaccine” that is “central to most of the personal and social problems that plague human life in today’s world.”
That’s a bold statement, based on a bold assumption that the U.S. is suffering from an ongoing epidemic of low self-esteem, and that this deficiency is dangerous. You’ve probably heard that teens with low self-esteem are more likely than other kids to be depressed, to be anxious, to drink, to do drugs, and to commit crimes. This is all true. But what might come as a surprise is that the inverse of this statement is not also true. High self-esteem is not a panacea against all things bad, and kids with high self-esteem often make bad choices too.
“It’s unclear, actually, just how important self-esteem may be in terms of predicting healthy outcomes,” says Grace Cho, a developmental psychologist at St. Olaf College, in Minnesota, and the co-author of Self-Esteem in Time and Place: How American Families Imagine, Enact, and Personalize a Cultural Ideal. “The literature is actually really kind of messy and mixed.” In an exhaustive review of the research literature, the Florida State University social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and his colleagues concluded that “raising self-esteem will not by itself make young people perform better in school, obey the law, stay out of trouble, get along better with their fellows, or respect the rights of others.”
Healthy self-esteem cannot be universally essential for another reason too: It is largely an American construct. Many other countries, including Japan and China, do not give self-esteem much, if any, consideration (some languages don’t even have a word for it). “Even in very modern societies, cultures that we think are very similar to ours don’t necessarily view self-esteem with the same set of ideals that we do,” Cho told me.
America’s obsession with self-esteem makes evaluating and encouraging it difficult and messy. U.S. parents often have a hard time estimating how much self-esteem their children have. “It’s a really complex construct in our day-to-day lives,” Chris Barry, a developmental psychologist at Washington State University, told me. For instance, some American kids (and adults) with low self-esteem outwardly project confidence in an attempt to appear self-confident. On top of that, parents tend to overestimate their children’s self-esteem—perhaps both because kids are adept at hiding their issues, and because parents assume that healthy self-esteem is crucial and desperately want to believe their kids are doing fine.
Parents also try to boost their kids’ sense of self-worth in the wrong way, through effusive praise. One survey found that 87 percent of U.S. parents believe that children need praise to feel good about themselves. But research conducted by Eddie Brummelman, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, suggests that praise can sometimes have the opposite effect. When parents give kids with low self-esteem what he calls “inflated” praise—such as saying “Oh, that is incredibly gorgeous!” to a kid who just made a stick-figure drawing—their self-esteem drops even more. Brummelman theorizes that when kids with low self-esteem hear inflated praise, they interpret it as pressure to continue performing exceptionally. They then launch into self-protection mode and end up doubting their ability more. (On the flip side, other research suggests that when we make our kids feel like the center of the universe all the time, we also increase the chance that they will grow up to become narcissists.)
Praising kids specifically for their ability or smarts—which parents do when they say things like “You’re so smart!” or “You’re such a great artist!”—can also pose problems. Research by the Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that this kind of praise, compared with praising kids for their effort, increases the chance that kids will buckle in the face of setbacks and have deflated feelings of self-worth. They begin to question the ability they were told they had. Over time, they come to think of ability as a fixed trait—not something that can be cultivated with practice.
American parents today are also quick to protect their kids from disappointment and failure. We give participation trophies when kids don’t win first place; we fly into the school to deliver kids’ forgotten homework. But these well-meaning interventions backfire because a child with healthy self-esteem is a child who has learned, through experience, that he can overcome obstacles and disappointment. He’s had the opportunity to fail and has discovered that failing doesn’t preclude him from being loved.
When I asked Dario Cvencek, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences who studies self-esteem, to describe to me what children with healthy self-esteem act like, he said that they’re often kids who are willing to accept a new challenge or work longer on challenging tasks. Perhaps that’s because they have had to do so before, and they have learned that perseverance through disappointment pays off. Martin Seligman, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, has argued that “by cushioning feeling bad, it has made it harder for our children to feel good.”
What should parents do to foster healthy self-esteem in their kids? We should stop obsessing over the concept, because it is probably not the be-all and end-all that we think it is. According to Cho, research has shown, for instance, that many East Asian children score low on traditional self-esteem measures, but that they rarely suffer from psychological problems or do poorly in school as a result. This suggests that “self-esteem is just one thing in a myriad of practices that parents can engage in that could help children thrive,” Cho said. We’re not going to ruin our kids by not focusing on it—and we might even help them, given that our approaches for boosting self-esteem are often counterproductive.
We should also be careful about showering our children with indiscriminate praise. Instead, we should be more honest in our appraisals—not by shaming kids or putting them down, but by giving them feedback that is commensurate with their effort. Tell your kid that you like their off-key singing, but don’t tell them it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard. When we praise our kids, we should encourage their efforts, rather than celebrate them for their achievements, abilities, or smarts. And we should let them experience hardships. When kids face adversity and get through it, they learn that they are loved unconditionally and that failure is not a sign of ineptitude, but an opportunity to learn, grow, and come to believe in themselves.
This post is adapted from Wenner Moyer’s recent book, How to Raise Kids Who Aren't Assholes.