But…my mom thinks I’m special.

20 01 2011

My job does not just consist of helping people to get their lives reorganized and back together, or helping them to learn to be better parents. A lot of what I do involves helping people to believe in themselves. Letting them know that they are competent parents, they can succeed in school, and that they deserve good treatment.

A lot of what we’re trying to do is boost people’s self esteem.

You’re special. You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and dog-gone-it, people like you.

Sorry. I had to.

People like to bitch about “the self-esteem movement.” We’re obsessed with making kids feel like they’re unique and talented. Trying is just as meaningful as doing.

We all know that this doesn’t quite fly is “the real world,” as we adults have so narcissistically dubbed our own lives. I’ve tried telling my boss that I really tried to get my service plan done, but it just didn’t happen. The important thing is that I learned something, and I had a lot of fun.
She didn’t go for that. Even when I gave her my drawing of a butterfly.

We’ve all heard the complaints. Everyone gets a trophy, because everyone’s a winner. (Hint: when there are two teams, one loses.) We can’t play dodgeball, because it makes people feel bad. (When I worked at a youth center, I made the kids play. We all need to get our aggression out.) Everyone gets a chance to be Student of the Month. (That used to mean something when I won it! Right?)

We want to raise kids who can tolerate failure and disappointment. Who understand that things won’t always go their way. Who realize that talent is special, and no one has it for everything. That way, our kids don’t become those dreadful people who embarrass themselves on American Idol.

Excessive, meaningless self-esteem breeds arrogance and a sense of entitlement. We can all agree that this is bad.

I don’t deal with that much in my day to day work. Like so many of the latest child-rearing crazes, feeling overly good about oneself seems to go hand in hand with privilege.

The two teen girls’ groups I ran in the past year were focused on improving self-esteem. To hear the girls talk, you wouldn’t think this was necessary. They sounded pretty pleased with themselves.

“Miss, I know I look good.”
“If that boy don’t wanna be with me, it’s his loss.”
“I don’t play with peer pressure. I don’t care what people think.”

Wonderful! We can conclude group! Perhaps these girls can go on some kind of speaking tour, imparting their wisdom to others.

Except, as happens so often with humans, their actions don’t match their statements.

The girls talked a good game. They sounded confident. But their sense of self-worth was superficial. For all they talked about leaving guys who didn’t treat them right, they returned to those boys, or a similar one, week after week.

They don’t care what others think, until they’re the only girl in the group who thinks shoplifting does not sound like a good way to spend the afternoon. Somehow, when security shows up, she’s the one left (quite literally) holding the bag.

The self esteem movement hadn’t reached their parents and grandmothers, who were raising them. When pressed for specifics, these girls could not list one thing that they were good at. And so often, their parents were no help.

One girl’s mother had the common problem of interacting with her daughter as though they were peers.

“You’re looking fat today!”
“I swear, you are my dumbest child.”
“Why are you being such a bitch?”

It was hard to explain to this woman the damage that this kind of talk caused a fifteen year old girl.

“She shouldn’t do those things if she doesn’t want me talking about them. You hear how she talks to me?”

I do hear how she talks to you. I wonder wherever she could get it from.

Newsflash from the desk of the Obvious News Network–kids can be jerks, especially to their parents. As the person who brought them into this world, it’s your job to rise above it.

It’s also your job to make sure that they feel good about themselves. Somewhere along the line this idea got distorted.

We’re either praising our kids every time they successfully use the potty until they reach high school, and preparing for their future in the World Cup due to their skill at three-year-old “let’s all bunch around the ball!” soccer.

Or we’re engaging in “brutal honesty,” a self-serving concept that allows people to  be mean without feeling bad about it, as they should.

Shockingly, I believe there is middle ground. Maybe there is a way to keep your kid from belting out “I Believe I Can Fly” in the school talent show, when you know it will wind up going viral on YouTube, but not for good reasons. And maybe that way does not involve, telling your child the first time he opens his mouth, “Oh no. You suck. May God have mercy on your soul.”

If nothing else, you’ll be keeping your kid off reality TV (and Maury).   And that’s good for everyone.

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6 responses

21 01 2011
Debra Stang

I’m totally on board with you about this one. I, too, have dealt with parents who run the gamut from not wanting to say “no” for fear it will damage their child’s self esteem to calling their child names I wouldn’t call my worst enemy.

Personally, I think that self esteem has to be built on something real. Every person has strengths, traits, and behaviors that are deserving of praise, but every person also needs honest feedback to address flaws, weaknesses, and other problems. It’s the responsibility of a good parent (and a good social worker, for that matter) to provide both types of communication.

Debra Stang
Alliant Professional Networking Specialist
A Great Source for Online CE

21 01 2011
socialjerk

Definitely agree. We do a planning conference every six months with each family that starts out with the family listing their strengths, then their concerns, then use those strengths to come up with a plan to address their concerns. It’s really cool to see how empowered people become when they actually consider that there are things that they, and their family, are good at.

Oh, and my mom emailed me to confirm that she does, in fact, believe that I am special. (In a good way.)

22 01 2011
njsmyth

Great post! I think self-esteem is one of the most overworked and misunderstood concept today. I sat through a school concert recently where they had the kids singing platitudes about how they believe in themselves and I’m sure that the chorus director thought of this as a self-esteem building activity. I thought of it as a new trigger for nausea.

The most recent research I’ve seen on self-esteem indicates that the global messages like “you’re terrific!” are ineffective and actually harmful, that the most effective message are those that are grounded in real feedback: knowing what they did well and what they need to work on. We definitely need to give both of these messages, model them in how we talk about ourselves, and help parents (and chorus directors) learn how to give them.

23 01 2011
socialjerk

Thanks! Man, those kids’ concerts are usually bad enough without a dose of “I love myself the way I am!” thrown in.

I can absolutely see how those kind of generic messages can be harmful. If nothing else, it makes it very difficult to have a meaningful discussion about self esteem. You have to break through all these meaningless sound bytes, like, “I want friends who like me for who I am, not who they want me to be.” I mean, yes, I want the kids I work with to want that, but saying it doesn’t make it true. Once you get through all of that, you can draw out what these kids really think about themselves, good and bad.

24 01 2011
mjfrombuffalo

I think you and I were separted at birth or something, because again this is exactly how I feel. But GEEZ, did you HAVE to mention that insipid, cloying, asinine song?! It’s going to be stuck in my head for the rest of the day, dammit!!!!

24 01 2011
socialjerk

I would be honored (though surprised) if we were separated at birth. 🙂

I know, that song is the worst thing ever. We had to sing it at my eighth grade graduation. And a friend of mine had a situation a few years ago when her son did, in fact, want to sing it in a school talent show. They had to have a little talk about whether or not that was a good idea. (He opted not to, and is now a well-adjusted teen.)

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