When talking about promoting self-esteem in your children, there are different schools of thought. The pendulum swings back and forth from one generation to the next in the belief that you must constantly build up your kids to make them feel special and important. The opposing view suggests that kids must fit into society, and if you make them believe they’re too special, they will become narcissistic and have trouble surviving in the real world.
I sat down with Dan Gottlieb, well-known family therapist best known for his award-winning radio talk show Voices in the Family on WHYY, and his most recent book, Learning from the Heart. What he said surprised me. He believes that parents shouldn’t pursue self-esteem for their children - that should be a byproduct of the love and support you give them.
“Kids don’t have to know that they’re great and wonderful, they have to know that they’re loved,” he points out. “Research shows that kids coming out of college are self-absorbed, less resilient, more narcissistic, and the depression rate is going up. Kids should grow up thinking they are human, they are loved, they are similar to everybody else, and they have the ability to make a contribution to the world, to help other people. That’s where the gifts are.”
Dr. Gottlieb urges parents to find what their kids do well, and have them do it over and over again. He related a story of a parent who talked about his seven year old daughter who loved dance and gymnastics. He told her it was time to choose one of the two, in order to take it to the next level. Dr. Gottlieb responded, “She’s a seven year old girl. Why does she have to take it up to the next level?”
“Parents need to role model for their children not self-esteem, but well-being, joy, equanimity, and balance. They already role model achievement, self-sacrifice, and accomplishments. The main mistake parents make is unexamined anxiety. When that father said that to me about his daughter, it was about his anxiety, it didn’t have that much to do with her.”
It’s important to tell your children that they did a great job with something, but not that they are the greatest in the world. They shouldn’t feel superior to other people, but should be productive, caring members of society who appreciate their peers. Praise is great, but don’t overdo it. Be realistic and point out failures along with successes.
“Over time, they’ll come to know that there’s something precious inside, and they’ll learn that by knowing that they’re loved and secure and they have successes and failures,” he says.