I think of this topic every time I look for a birthday card for one of my grandchildren. It is difficult to find a suitable card, most are full of language stoking the little darling’s self-esteem. I would rather choose a goofy card than one that tells them how special, unique and wonderful they are.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a typical grandpa and think all my grandchildren are wonderful. But I am fearful of filling them with self-important ideas that will be a stumbling block later in life when they go to work for someone who is not their grandpa.
An experiment was conducted some years ago with a group of school children. They were divided into two groups and given a simple math quiz. After the quiz, one group was told “You are very smart.” The second group was told “You worked very hard.” Then both groups were given a more difficult quiz to complete. The ones who had been told how smart they were appeared to freeze when they encountered a difficult problem, afraid to reveal that they weren’t so smart after all. The ones who had been told how hard they had worked simply went to work and tried to solve all the problems. They scored much higher than the “smart” group.
This experiment reveals the snare I see lurking behind the emphasis on building children’s self-esteem. Writers of books for children today are told that the children must be shown to be solving their problems and conflicts without the help of an adult. We are raising children today who recognise no authority other than themselves. Most psychologists seem to think this will lead to a generation of clear-thinking, resourceful adults. The evidence so far shows this great social engineering experiment to be a disaster.
Children raised in this way are singularly ill-equipped to deal with failure. Yet failure is a part of every person’s life and prepares us for success. If a child cannot admit having made a mistake, he cannot learn from that mistake. When a child cannot be corrected or see the lesson to be learned from her mistakes, she cannot learn.
Adaptability is essential to growing up. When a child cannot accept that there are consequences to her misbehaviour, she cannot adapt and become more mature. When she cannot accept having mistakes in her school work marked with a red x, how can she correct the mistake and learn?
A further complication is that our self-esteem culture does not favour the development of good parent-child relationships or teacher-student relationships. Rather than empowering our children, the self-esteem culture is leaving them hurting, defensive, unable to really identify and acknowledge their feelings, or to find any healing for their hurts.
The self-esteem culture arises from a rebellion against the teaching of the Bible that we are sinful beings. Yet, when one accepts this fact, there opens up a new panorama of ways to build healthy human relationships. We are told to love our neighbour as ourselves, to esteem others as better than ourselves. As counter-intuitive as this may seem in today’s society, this is actually the way to happiness and fulfilment. Meditating on how wonderfully special and smart we are has never brought happiness.
That kind of thinking doesn’t earn respect either. A child needs to know that the grounds for being respected are laid when he conducts himself in a respectable manner and is respectful to others.
Correcting a child will not leave him emotionally scarred for life. Leaving a child uncorrected is apt to make him an emotional cripple when he has to face the real world.