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What Really Cultivates Self Esteem in Students?

Parents and teachers have intuitively felt that lots of affirmation and care builds self-esteem in children. This is why millions of moms and dads compliment their kids for even little things they do. It’s why some teachers have found it difficult to let a kid fail a course or endure hardship. Yet, since the self-esteem movement took root in America over the last forty years, we have learned an important truth. Affirmation alone does not breed self-esteem. It breeds narcissism. Dr. Jean Twenge now oversees a longitudinal study of college students that dates back to the 1970s. She tells us narcissism continues to climb as parents dote over their children, validating their every move and telling them they’re special. In the 1950s, when teens were asked if they were a “very important person”, less than ten percent said they were. Fifty years later, more than 80 percent said they were. Unfortunately, they continue to show signs of depression, angst, and poor self-esteem when it comes to risk taking and responsibility.

self esteem

What we’ve found is that self-esteem is strengthened when adults are both:

  1. Responsive: Encouragement, belief, understanding and support.
  2. Demanding: Setting standards and holding kids accountable to them.

Believe it or not, genuine self-esteem is built from achievement not just affirmation. Kids need to feel they can accomplish something with their own skill set. When adults do things for their kids, it eventually sends the message: “You are unable. I must do this.” Eventually, even good kids will begin to feel poorly about themselves. They may hide behind a façade of pride and confidence, but deep down it is what psychologists call: “High arrogance, low self-esteem.” I believe by the time they reach ten years old, kids must gain a sense of pride through accomplishment (i.e. I performed with excellence in my gift area), and through effort (i.e. even if I didn’t win, I know I gave my best effort).

Ron and Melanie are parents of a teenage daughter named Melissa. They’ve admitted to me that they’ve been guilty of too much affirmation and doing too much for their daughter. As Melissa entered her teenage years, she grew overweight, selfish, and felt entitled to nice clothes, smart phones, expensive restaurants—you name it. Needless to say, she was less fun to be around for both family and friends. This led to Melissa making poor decisions just to get a guy to like her. To make a long story short, Melissa got pregnant. It was a crucible for her and the entire family. Once she had her baby, things had to change. Mom and dad continued to do things for her, but they became exhausted. While Ron and Melanie continued to offer support and belief, they set standards for her and stopped doing so many things for her. Melissa became a changed young woman. As she performed and took responsibility, she soon became happier. While it felt counter-intuitive, the less Ron and Melanie did for their daughter, the better things got. Melanie took initiative with tasks, helped out around the house, lost sixty pounds and looks great.

I don’t believe this is a coincidence. Every student needs a responsive adult, but they also need a demanding adult to pull the very best out of them.

Do you tend to be more responsive or demanding? How can you balance yourself?

self esteem



  • Disheartened Mom

    Timely post, Tim! My husband and I are wading through some challenging issues with our youngest child and only daughter, a Senior in high school this year. She and I had such a close and loving relationship when she was younger that’s now become quite strained. I have nurtured her since infancy to follow Jesus; to love people; and to use her gifts and abilities to their full extent, and she embraced these goals. However, something changed in her when she began high school.

    We sought out the best public school district when we began having children and raised our kids in one of the top in our state. A school system rated “Excellent with Distinction” tends to attract high-achieving adults who groom their children to be exceptional in every way; academically, athletically, socially, and physically. I could go on, but my point is that the race to be the top performer was deep rooted in the social environment our kids grew up in. We lived in the “cheap seats” of our little suburb. Our income wasn’t anywhere near the average for our town and my husband doesn’t have a great job. We did our best to give them a healthy perspective on the pursuit of success; to work hard, but to also understand that we all make mistakes and failure is sometimes an essential part of growth. Our boys never got caught up in all the materialism and pretentiousness, but our daughter became extremely social. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that she’s engaging in dangerous activities or disrespectful outbursts. She’s not unruly. My concerns for her are issues of the heart. My sweet, loving girl now has a poor attitude, is self-absorbed with an incredible sense of entitlement. She chooses her friends over her family and places no value on integrity. Sounds harsh, but between you and me, it’s the truth…hopefully not forever, but indeed for now.
    When she got to high school, she migrated toward the most popular girls; the cheerleaders, the most beautiful, and the most wealthy. She never would admit it, but it wasn’t hard to see she held the true friends she’d had since grade school at arms length because they weren’t popular enough. The majority of the girls at the high school are thin, blonde, tan and beautiful…oh, and smart, athletic, and financially privileged! They walk and talk and think just alike. It’s quite Stepford-like, actually. Regretfully, for the past three years my job required a lot of me, including a long commute each day, so I was not home enough to fully assess the problem and come up with a solution. By the end of her Sophomore year, she had abandoned her love for horses, trading riding time in for football games and going to the mall with friends. Rather than seeing her uniqueness blossom, we saw her interests fade away into a pool of anonymity. That’s when we decided to check out. We had become so disgusted with the suburban bubble we lived in and believed the best thing for our daughter was to remove her from the toxic environment she was in.

    We moved about a half hour away to a smaller, more rural town. We enrolled her (Junior year) in a very small Christian school and thought that by slowing things down and simplifying life, she might regain interest in riding, and have time to figure out who she is, outside of her friends. She was horrified at the onset, but quickly made some wonderful, genuine friends at her new school. I am taking some much needed time off from my career and have had a lot more time to focus on her, which undoubtedly makes her feel like she’s being scrutinized. Although I am much more hands-on, she still has plenty of freedom, if she earns it. For the past six months we’ve been clear and consistent on consequences for poor choices and have communicated our expectations. She knows that her willingness to be responsible and take initiative directly impacts the amount of freedom she has. But despite the affection and support I show her, we have a lot of difficult days because she continues to push boundaries and shirk responsibilities. As our boys have recently left home, I have tried to draw closer to her, encourage her and teach her through my own mistakes while gently reminding her of what God wants for us and from us. I thought that she’d have adjusted by now. She has great friends at her new school, a really nice “first” boyfriend, she’s challenged in her studies and should be excited about beginning the next stage of her life as a college student. But the only thing that has changed is her resentment level toward me (I’m the disciplinarian). She still spends a lot of time with her old friends and being the lover of people that I encouraged her to be, she’s found a way to seamlessly integrate her new friends with the old ones! She knows what’s right, but she doesn’t care right now. She doesn’t want to hear another Bible verse, or read another article about productivity, goal setting, or Godly character. What’s important to her is the next football game, where she can meet up with her old friends and feel confident in her spray-on tan, freshly whitened teeth, and flowing waves of blonde hair while she plays the role of a complete airhead to get a laugh from the boys…the polar opposite of what I’ve taught her to value!

    What’s at the heart of her actions and attitude is clearly insecurity because she doesn’t know who she is. Rather than seeing her value as a child of God, she thinks her identity/value is limited to her parent’s financial portfolio, and she’s ashamed. She feels inadequate, so she pretends. She may not drive a new Audi or live in the right neighborhood, but she can mimic the look and persona of these girls, so that people will want to be like her. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes, but I truly, passionately have taught my kids to value the right things in life. Even in those years where I had to work so much, they knew the turmoil it caused me because of the sacrifices I had to make, and I used that situation to teach some important lessons. I’ve given them unconditional love, permission to fail, and consequences for breaking the rules. So how in the world did my daughter choose to be so shallow, and how do I inspire her to treasure good character over the pursuit of approval from people who only value her appearance? I’m hoping you have some resources or past blog posts to recommend…

    • Thanks for your note. What you’re experiencing happens far too often…millions of times across our country. For whatever it’s worth, while I don’t know your daughter, I would bet this is a phase she will come out of when school is done and the scorecard for popularity changes in adult life. What I would do if I were you is to find ways—experiential, engaging ways—to keep building empathy in her. Compassion is vital to address the identity issues she faces. If she can find her primary gifts and serve others with them…it could be huge. You mentioned resources at the end of your question. May I recommend using either Habitudes Book One or Book Two as a conversation starter with her? It is our most popular resource (book) and young adults seem to like it. Thanks again for writing.

  • Future-Father

    I think you hit the nail on the head! These are incredible thoughts! I have noticed that my generation is incredibly narcissistic. I believe it’s because we’ve been too wishy-washy with our kids. Discipline is important in establishing responsibility. So now I have to figure out how to be a compassionate father while instilling a love for responsibility in my kids.

  • richard

    I am increasingly frustrated over my generation (20-30) with how they feel they cannot provide for themselves, relying instead on other people providing for their needs.

    My parents own their own catering company and restaurant. When things got tough they pulled my older brother and I out of school to work for them. My brother was 12 and I was 10. I started working about 5-6 hours a day, 5 days a week. By the time I was 12 I would start work around 5am and finish around 5pm, 6 days a week. I was running the bakery so I had to start early to get all the breads and desserts made. When I was 14 I usually had 2 or 3 employees working under me.

    My point isn’t to gloat or woe is me. My point is that people can be expected to work hard and they can achieve something with their lives. Too often I see teens and young adults that feel they can’t accomplish their goals because they have never been pushed to work hard for what they want.

    By the way, even though I dropped out of school at 7th grade, I taught myself by reading text books, got my GED, and now I am in college studying to be a history teacher.

    • Thank you for the comment, Richard. I agree with your point on the younger generation being capable of more than what many expect.

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