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WHEN PSYCHOLOGISTS and counselors talk about self-esteem, it sounds like an immunologist talking about a vaccine.

Those who have a healthy ration of good feelings about themselves are more likely to be immune to drug and alcohol abuse and depression, the experts say. And it's thought that they are less inclined to mess up their relationships and their careers.

So, of course, adults want to package this concept of self-esteem as a legacy to their children.

Hence all the books, lectures, school programs, media stories and parenting advice that has flooded the country and pushed aside other child-rearing theories, at least for the time being.

Some examples:

A California consulting firm publishes the High Achieving Schools Newsletter -- a publication on self-esteem enhancement.

A Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda elementary school offers a seven-week program on self-esteem for selected students.

Anita Gitlin Kleiner of Kenmore writes a book called "Boris Bunny's Self-Esteem Secret: A Children's Book About Self-Esteem."

When Grand Island kindergartners are picked as "star of the week," their accomplishments are highlighted in front of their class and their family.

Despite the popularity of the self-esteem movement, experts remain divided on whether the approach is healthy.

Nationally syndicated columnist JohnRosemond, for example, thinks parents should focus less on spoon-feeding self-esteem to children and more on encouraging the "three R's" -- respect, responsibility and resourcefulness.

Rosemond's May 5 column in The Buffalo News thanked a high school teacher for spurring him on to better work. As a sophomore, he wrote, he was loudly berated by Miss Grimsley when he handed in a sloppy paper. As his face turned red, a chorus of snickering emanated from his classmates.

Was his self-esteem so flattened that he became a psychopath? No, he wrote. Instead, he rose from the humiliation to become a psychologist.

And in that role he thinks adults do a
disservice to children by shielding them from the truth in an effort to make them feel good.

"Parents have been intimidated into believing that if they do something that makes a child terribly unhappy they've done something wrong," Rosemond said in a telephone interview from North Carolina, where he directs the Center for Affirmative Parenting.

"The point is that we have made it a figurative crime to give negative feedback to a child. It is regarded as almost abusive to say that you are extremely disappointed, that they haven't done good work and you won't accept it.

"My contention is that children are beautifully self-adjusting, but in order to self-adjust they have to be given accurate feedback."

The dilemma is how to do that.

Local family therapist Kathleen Calabrese agrees that the young scamp Rosemond needed to be corrected, but she says it should have been done in private. And she wonders about the effect of public correction on a more vulnerable child.

"Some kids don't have the reservoir of good feelings to withstand an assault like that," she said. "I think correction is important, but it should be done in a way that doesn't lead to humiliation."

Ms. Calabrese believes, though, that children need to be resilient.

"You can't cushion them from harshness and expect them to negotiate," she said. "But I don't think you (should) undermine a child's sense of self to toughen him or her up."

At Hoover Elementary School, a National School of Excellence this year, principal Fran Paskowitz invited selected students -- those whose teachers thought they would benefit most -- to join a seven-week self-esteem group.

In a letter to parents, she explained that besides mastering reading and math, children need to learn how to feel OK when things aren't going their way and how to take responsibility for their choices.

Author Anita Gitlin Kleiner, who consults with Hoover and other schools and businesses, ranks a healthy sense of self at the top of the psychological ladder.

"I worked with prisoners for six years, and they said, 'If I had an ounce of self-esteem, I wouldn't be here,' " said Mrs. Kleiner.

"The more people I meet, the more I realize that the origin of problems is their lack of self-esteem. It didn't matter if they were depressed or lacked a sense of direction or had poor relationships. Any of these issues could stem from lack of self-esteem."

Mrs. Kleiner wrote "Boris Bunny" after observing how poorly children treat each other.

"Children used to be teased about wearing glasses or having acne. Now it's whether they have the right designer jeans," she said. "I think peer abuse has gotten worse over the years."

Through Boris, she tells children that they are responsible for their own happiness and that it doesn't depend on being liked.

"Boris Bunny finds that he can feel fulfilled with himself, and he gives less power to others," she said.

In recent years, psychologists have discovered just how relevant a good self-image is.

"It used to be that mental health professionals didn't officially believe that children develop depression. But the latest research shows that children do become depressed, and it stands to reason that those with low self-esteem are more prone to develop depression," said Amherst psychologist Martha Deed, president-elect of the New York State Psychological Association's Clinical Division.

"And people who don't feel confident about themselves can grow into situations where they tolerate abusive or exploitive behavior."

But promoting self-esteem doesn't mean that a child should get what he wants, when he wants it.

"If you think about self-esteem, but don't think about it weighed against consideration for other people, you can get selfishness instead," said Ms. Deed.

"And I don't think we want to train our children in that direction."

Still, it happens. Think back to the 2-year-olds who rule in restaurants.

"If parents don't curb them, they train them to behave in a way that leads to rejection," said Ms. Deed.

"Let your child know that he or she is important, especially when you are making corrections," she said. "But also let them know you know they can do better.

"You can encourage the child's personhood without encouraging the behavior that lets them avoid challenges or learning to be sociable in public."

Kevin Leman, a Tucson, Ariz., psychologist and author of the recently published "Bringing Up Kids Without Tearing Them Down," said he doesn't even mention self-esteem in his book.

Like Rosemond, he has an alphabetic maxim.

"Children need the ABCs -- acceptance, belonging and competence," he said. "You want to make sure a child is secure in these ways. Then he doesn't grow up to join a cult in Waco or a gang or do things that, in essence, say he's not worth loving."

Leman might add a "D" to his ABCs, because discipline ranks high with him.

"There is a plethora of books out on how not to damage the psyche, but I think there are times when children willfully disobey you, and that's when you need to give them a swat on the tail," said Leman, the father of five.

"But I probably haven't done that more that 10 times in the aggregate."

The advice he gives to parents as he travels around the country is to raise children who think for themselves and who care enough about themselves to avoid doing things that will harm them.

"From the time a child leaves the ankle-biter stage until they hit the hormone group, they better feel they are good at something or the jaws of the peer group will rip them apart with, 'Here, snort this, try this, drink this,' " said Leman.

What complicates the issue is that society equates self-esteem with achievement, said Ms. Calabrese.

A better approach is for people to assess how they run their lives rather than concentrate on whether they've had major accomplishments, which are limited to a small portion of the population.

"The way in which you take care of yourself and the people in your life, and also in those brief encounters you have with people, are important," she said.

"Self-esteem should be based on being satisfied with who you are."

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