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Self-Esteem, or Self-Entitlement?

Awarding your child a trophy just for showing up? Jumping in to rescue little Janie when she calls her teacher names? Excusing yourself when you take off work for the third time this month to drive little Bobby’s forgotten lunchbox to school? You may be harming your children well into adulthood. For the past several decades, society embraced the idea of children’s self-esteem and ran with it. What began originally as a well-intended effort to build into our children’s sense of worth has nearly devolved into a poster session in helicopter parenting. We are in danger of turning our wonderful little Janies and Bobbies into self-important, self-absorbed, easily-bored, demanding pint-sized wonderful little and not-so-little monsters. We negotiate and engage in pleading with our children to “Be good. Please? Okay?” How often we move the parenting goalposts on our children by delivering an ultimatum – and then giving in or even rewarding bad behavior. Is it any wonder our children don’t know what to think, often can’t trust our edicts, and realize that if they hold out long enough, we will either cave or change our minds. How often I have witnessed loving, good, beleaguered, exhausted parents plead with, chase around, be guilt-tripped into fearing their child’s rejection, tantrum, anger or bad behavior if they don’t give in to the child. Children are smart, observant, and quick learners. They learn quickly who they can manipulate easiest, who isn’t confident or serious about what they mean and who doesn’t mean what they say. Children can detect when a parent is serious, when they are confident in their ability to parent, and when they aren’t. Children are never “monsters” in the literal sense of the word, but as wonderful as they are, they nevertheless do know how to capitalize on a parent’s emotions, exhaustion, and guilty feelings. Dennis Rainey, founder of FamilyLife and himself the father of six children, once quipped, “Children are little lawyers”, and it is true.

Allan Josephson, MD, chairman of the Family Committee of the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, posits that when children’s sense of value is too little or too much, they can act out in selfish ways. A child with a healthy sense of self-esteem will value himself for the human being that he is and that as such, his life has value, meaning, and worth. And so does everyone else’s. Importantly, that intrinsic belief system will be invaluable when a child weathers difficult times; it will not be mercurially dependent on his moods or feelings or emotions. A child with too much self-esteem, often brought about by an unending stream of empty flattery, incessant attention, indulgences, spoiling, making he or she believe they are genuinely the center of the universe (or the home), repeated excusing of his or her bad behavior or treatment of others, dishonesty, shirking of responsibility, and the like, can be a child with too lofty and unrealistic a sense of their own esteem - and often an underestimation of others’ value and esteem.

A childcentric home is a harmful seedbed where often the marriage suffers because the child is always held in a place at the apex of the hierarchy of the home, instead of ideally God first, then the marriage, then children, in that order. That hierarchy may rankle some parents, particularly single parents, who can often form an extremely close bond with their child. This can often create a real problem in the blended family, when one or both remarried parents create a new family with a pre-existing bond with their biological child that cemented a long time before the bond with the new spouse, and the new spouse can often seem like a “threat” to the firmly-entrenched relationship between biological parent and child.

The childcentric home puts the child first in nearly all things, often to the detriment of the marriage. A child may be allowed to sleep between the parents on a regular basis, preventing needed adult intimacy and privacy. They may become so accustomed to being the primary focus of attention in the home that when the adults in the home need and want their own needs met, for example, plan a romantic weekend getaway, the child can become temperamental and demanding or even feign illness as a way to get the attention back on themselves Often the child in the childcentric home is not doing anything “mean”, but merely responding to how they have been taught– that they have the “right” to demand they always be put first, even to the exclusion of the parents’ marriage or others in the home.

In actuality, children experience more a sense of security and happiness when they live in a home with a healthy hierarchy of the adults and marriage first, where the marriage is nurtured, and a healthy adult relationship is modelled in front of them, which can include good communication, conflict resolution, negotiation, cooperation, adaptation. All of these abilities are critical for children to observe and learn and they cannot do this when they are the “Baby Huey”, in a sense, in a home with parents that tiptoe around their child’s tantrums, demands, pouting. If we teach our children that the way to get what they want and need is to demand and to consistently take, even to the harm to others’ own boundaries, needs and rights, we send them into adulthood as superficial, perhaps even narcissistic, self-absorbed people whose world stops at the end of their own nose. They can easily find it difficult to experience genuine empathy and caring selflessness towards others, virtue for virtue’s sake without demanding anything in return. They will be at risk for finding it difficult to earn trust and respect from others, and may experience relationship problems where they find it hard to be in a give-take relationship founded on principles of kindness, empathy, long-term commitment. No healthy parent wants this for their child.

Everytime we heap false praise, empty flattery, on our children we teach them that insincerity counts. Children are adept at spotting insincerity. Everytime we ask a child to do chores and then we feel guilty, or we are drawn into a pleading contest, or we don’t follow through on our household rules (such as losing allowance or privileges for not doing chores or homework), or we allow them to stay home from school for the third time this month because they aren’t really ill, per se, but simply don’t want to go, or perhaps we excuse our child to the neighbor when our child threw the baseball at the neighbor’s window when they were already warned not to and when the neighbor rightly expects restitution we instead get mad at the neighbor, we have just taught our child a profound lesson in self-entitlement, as well as bad sportsmanship, failed negotiations, and owning responsibility. We have taught them nothing about humility or empathy. In short, we create a monster, teaching our child that negotiable, earned “privileges” are actually non-negotiable, intractable “rights”. Prominent psychologist Dr. John Rosemond wrote that he learned the difference himself from a single mother who taught him through example and unconditional love that he was not a “big fish in a little pond”, but actually a “little fish in a big pond”. He had to learn to negotiate, cooperate, adapt, respect, live shoulder-to-shoulder with about seven billion other human beings on this planet and that his rights didn’t count anymore than the rights of the person next to him.

We are witnessing in this self-absorbed culture a trend towards rewarding children for simply showing up. There seems to be a distaste for asking our children to work hard, to learn how to tolerate disappointment, to have to weather the inevitable storms of life. On social media several years ago, I read of a woman who lovingly promised her infant daughter a future of no disappointments, no hurts, no rejections, nothing but love, love, love. It was unrealistic, and thusly set up her child, albeit with a loving parent’s best intentions, for a life of disappointment. An always-rescuing parent set up this child for not being resilient and wise enough to expect to weather the inevitable storms and disappointments of life. This world is made up of imperfect human beings and our precious little Janies and Bobbies not if, but will, face those disappointments. They will even disappoint others. What are we teaching them about rolling with the punches of life? What are we modelling to our children about negotiating with others, about handling conflicts? What are we teaching them about listening and giving, instead of constantly egocentrically demanding? At the same time, are we showing our children how to value themselves based on their humanity, not based on their performance?

Are we teaching our children to be courageous, and yet human? Are we expecting them to be perfect? On the ball field and off? Do we demonstrate empathy when the grades aren’t that great on the report card and look for ways to allow them humanity, but instill a passion for excellence and doing the best they can? Do we expect perfection or best effort? Children thrive when there are high, reasonable, consistent and loving expectations in the home and school. No child thrives in a home where there are too-low, lazy expectations.

Our culture is laden with the (good) message about being a gracious loser in sports and other avenues. But what are we teaching our children about being a gracious winner? Modelling for our impressionable child that it’s okay to brag or spike the ball in front of the loser of the game is not healthy, either. When my daughter was involved as a teen athlete in competitive waterskiing tournaments, I warned her that if I witnessed her being a bad sport, whether to a competitor, a judge, or anyone else, no judge would have to remove her. I would do it myself. I never had to, fortunately. Our children will often go about as far as the limits will allow, and those limits must be age-appropriate, consistent, well-communicated, and enforced. A child can become anxious and test limits when he or she doesn’t have confidence where the limits actually are. We must be consistent, calm, reasonable, and allow ourselves and our children to be human, but not excuse negative behavior. Children must be allowed to make honest mistakes; how did we ourselves learn? Personally, I have done some of my best learning when I fell flat on my face. Those were the lessons that seemed to stick with me the best and I never forgot. If we can’t allow our children to fall flat on their faces sometimes, it speaks to something about us, not our children. Children need to strive for excellence, for the occasional (well-earned) reward and incentive. They gain intrinsic reward and confidence from a hard job well done. To reward children for simply showing up is a reflection of decadence and entitlement….lessons that will stay with our children throughout their lives.

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