Looking good can be bad

Neerja Singh

It has been a generation now of the “self-esteem building in children” movement. Schools, parents, institutions have raised those born roughly between 1982 and 2002 to believe that they are pearls in the oysters of the world. This cohort was told they could be anything they wanted to be simply if they put their minds to it. They grew up believing they were special and destined for greatness. They internalized all the eager adulation to take on an aura of “I could be President of India if I liked but it is not my cup of tea”. And what has been the outcome? Take a look around.

Self-belief seems to touch delusional levels in some children. They have grown up thinking they can do no wrong. Their parents have been so fearful of negative outcomes, they have overextended themselves on providing their offspring daily affirmation. So petrified are we of all the talk of anxiety induced by competition that we hasten to tell them, “You are enough as you are.” But what is apparently received instead is, “I just need to exist.”

It sounds a bit harsh but consider what we are seeing. Boredom is anathema. Criticism is personal attack. Perseverance is a compromise. Life has to be gold dust every moment. There is no calming these restless products of an over-zealous and fearful nurturing. Look at the acronyms that define their beliefs. YOLO or you only live once. FOMO or the fear of missing out. Words like industry, struggle, fruits of labour, patience have been replaced with ikigai, every sparking moment, celebrate yourself, self-love. Even bouncing may not be backward, it has to read bouncing forward!

What’s wrong however with having children feel good about themselves, one ought to ask. Is it not about them acquiring a strong core and a robust sense of identity? So long as their self-concepts are based on productive and functional behaviour and genuine, demonstrable accomplishment, it is all good. The problem arises when their self-image is falsely inflated and does not find reflection in personal, social or academic success.

And that is odd since it has been believed for long that it is in fact low self-esteem that is destructive and high-risk. Academic failure, substance abuse, promiscuity have all been typically attributed to a sense of inferiority. But there is new research now to say that a low self-esteem may not after all be that destructive. In fact, it is a high self-esteem that can lead to problematic behaviour at times. Self-absorbed, entitled and irresponsible children can be traced back to sky high praises. It has been found that many criminals and drug abusers and bullies see themselves as superior to others around them.

“The common-sense understanding of self-esteem has been obscured by its over-application,” says Allan Josephson, MD, chairman of the Family Committee of the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “Self-esteem certainly is important. But we’ve developed this misguided notion that parents should continually reward and praise their children. That doesn’t work either.” According to him, children are more likely to act selfishly if they are either undervalued or overvalued. Those who depend on outside praise to feel good about themselves tend to struggle later in life when teachers, employers and friends do not shower them with compliments.

Has good parenting/teaching gone bad? How does one strike a balance between tough love and enabling bad behaviour? What does the middle ground look like? Perhaps the problem is not high self-esteem but false self-esteem. There is greater integrity in praising only the noteworthy accomplishments and behaviours. It is recommended that praise be directed at the effort and not just the end result. Keep it real, in other words.

Pep talks rarely work. Despite what the life coaches tell us, we don’t have to love ourselves. It keeps us from adopting practical coping strategies that succeed. As a matter of fact, some strategies to protect one’s high self-esteem may include lying, hiding mistakes, making excuses, blaming others, being angry at criticism or avoiding challenges altogether. Kids with low self-esteem on the other hand may dismiss or discount their victories too. Looking good could feel bad and threatening to them because it brings focus to an “an inevitable future failure”.

Low self-esteem, in addition, has been known to be emotionally painful. It can set up the child for depression and eating disorders. Children develop self-respect when they get to challenge themselves. Rather than rescue them when the going gets tough, it strengthens them to have to keep trying and figure the way out themselves. It is crucial that they understand that everyone has pluses and minuses and that it is quite normal. Being matter of fact about mistakes and not overthinking helps them to stand up again from the occasional fall life may bring. They say the mightiest adults are those the young can be at their worst with. The young benefit from knowing that no matter what, they are cherished. Social connections and their ability to empathize are sure to boost true self-esteem. Realistic expectations and a healthy respect for the young one’s unique talents are other ways to help them craft a healthy sense of identity.

And enduring health more and more seems to involve moving beyond intense self-focus. Real esteem perhaps is not about feeling special or wonderful but in letting go of the question, “Am I good enough?” It is only when the children are not judging themselves that they can be in the moment to listen and learn and grow. The way forward therefore is to let go of harsh self-evaluations. What matters more is that the three fundamental needs of connection, competence and choice be taken care of. Helping children connect with something bigger than themselves can ease the self-focus that causes low self-esteem.

So deep-seated is the bug of exclusivity today that just being ordinary and content, satisfied and satiated, restful and rested has become extraordinary. This is not to say that the self-esteem movement has been a complete waste. It just ought to be a by-product of a wholesome relationship with a child and not the goal.

The author is a former teacher/journalist, published author and professional speaker on generational empathy with a background and training in media, having worked in advertising, public relations, documentary film making, and feature journalism. She can be reached at neerja@neerjasingh.com and https://neerjasingh.com.

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