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Self-Esteem Myths Even Plague Experts
It irks me when experts give parents inaccurate, confusing advice that leads them astray. This week brought another research study on the importance and impact of self-esteem. The December 2003 study focusing on bullies said, "bullies are psychologically strong...don't show signs of depression or social anxiety and they don't feel lonely...We hope that these findings help us dispel the myth that bullies suffer from low self-esteem."
John Rosemond, the syndicated parenting columnist, has written several articles against building self-esteem in children. One excerpt from a 1996 article says, "Some thirty years ago, ‘helping’ professionals began promoting "high self-esteem" as the be-all, end-all of good mental health ... which contributed to a host of social problems... and quickly mutated into self-worship." In another article, he says, "Gang members have high self-esteem. So do spouse abusers. On a narcissism scale, violent criminals, long thought to be 'acting out' low self-esteem, obtained a higher mean score than people in any other category."
Does your common sense scream, "This can’t be right"? Well it’s not! Such findings only prove these "experts" don’t know the correct definition of "self-esteem." So I’d like to offer a lesson to parents and experts alike.
There are three key definitions one must know before discussing the issue of self-esteem:
Now, consider the two "expert" findings above. What are they really talking about? If they correctly used the term "ego-esteem," their findings make sense. Bullies don’t feel like worthwhile human beings; they build themselves up by tearing others down. Scoring high on a narcissism scale indicates high "ego-esteem," not high "self-esteem."
Similarly, there are two techniques often associated with the development of self-esteem.
Many experts tell parents to build children’s self-esteem by using "praise," which uses judging labels that focus on pleasing others. For example, "You did a good job," "You make me happy," "I’m so proud of you," "You are smart," "pretty," etc. The speaker judges whether the receiver is any of these things — so the receiver must look to others for validation. People can only get praise for doing a "good job" if they actually do "good." These factors show praise builds self-image. If used without addressing any negative aspects of a person’s performance, it builds ego-esteem. What research is finding are the negative outcomes of using praise and not addressing inappropriate behavior.
Parents can build "self-esteem" by using "encouragement," which uses descriptive words that foster internal motivation. For example, "I noticed you sorted the laundry and did a load all by yourself without being asked! That really helped the family. How do you feel about the job you did?" Or "You did it! I bet you feel proud of yourself." Encouragement allows the receiver to judge their own work and the descriptions give them guidelines for setting standards and self-evaluating their work in the future.
We can also give encouragement when someone does an imperfect job. For example, "Did you see that one black sock that got in the whites and stained them? What can you do next time to prevent that? Do you know how to get the stains out? I’ll show you."
There are actually twenty-five tools for building self-esteem, which I describe in The Parents Toolshop, but I only have room to tell you the top three. To build self-esteem give people a "D.I.P.":
Use these definitions and guidelines to weed out inaccurate advice and avoid the pitfalls of praise and ego-esteem. Build self-esteem in others by giving them "a D.I.P. a day!"
Jody Johnston Pawel is a Licensed Social Worker, Certified Family Life Educator, second-generation parent educator, founder of The Family Network, and President of Parents Toolshop Consulting. She is the author of 100+ parent education resources, including her award-winning book, The Parent's Toolshop. For 25+ years, Jody has trained parents and family professionals through her dynamic workshops and interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines, and the Ident-a-Kid television series. Jody currently serves as the online parenting expert for Cox Ohio Publishing’s mom-to-mom websites and also serves on the Advisory Board of the National Effective Parenting Initiative.
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