Q. I've read your column for years and a couple of your books. You believe, I know, that the "self-esteem" method of child rearing is not common-sense-based and that it generally results in undisciplined children, but you do believe that children should have good self-esteem, don't you?
A. To be honest, I don't believe that the concept of self-esteem is helpful to an understanding of the needs of children, nor do I believe that self-esteem, at an individual level, is even necessarily healthy.
The concept of self-esteem derives from the work of the late psychologist Abraham Maslow, who coined the term "self-actualized" to describe an individual who, in the autumn of his years, looked back upon his life with a good measure of satisfaction, concluding that he had made a positive contribution to humankind. Maslow clearly did not feel that children were capable of self-actualization. Nonetheless, in the 1960s, psychologists proposed that adults could indeed assist children toward developing good self-esteem by "making them feel good about themselves." With the successful marketing of this idea, American child-rearing practices became focused not on character development -- as had been the case in prior generations -- but psychological development; more specifically, the cultivation of positive feelings, especially about one's self.
After wrestling for years with the issue of whether or not children should have good self-esteem (and whether or not, therefore, adults should strive to cultivate this emotional quality in children), I have come to the conclusion that the answer is "no."
In the first place, children should have no more esteem themselves than should adults. Children should learn to esteem others, beginning with their parents. The assignment of esteem eventually generalizes to other authority figures, peers and one's "fellow man." At some point in adulthood, what goes around comes around. The respect given suddenly "matures" as true self-respect. In the final analysis, therefore, giving respect (esteem) away to others is far more fulfilling than the ephemeral feelings that result from having people tell you how wonderful you are.
Second, children need to learn to feel guilt, remorse and shame when appropriate. The idea that parents (and teachers) are primarily responsible for inculcating self-esteem has resulted in a general injunction against making children feel bad about themselves when they do bad things. And yes, to anticipate a question, I do believe that children should, when they behave in anti-social ways, feel bad about themselves. Therefore, in those instances, they should be made to feel bad about themselves. The Nouveau idea that adults should criticize the act, but not the child himself allows children to distance themselves from, and therefore not take full responsibility for, anti-social behavior. Shame is pathological only in the extreme. Assigned or accepted when appropriate, it is a social essential.
From all accounts, today's typical child is considerably more self-centered, self-absorbed and unwilling to accept accountability for his/her own behavior than was the typical child of a generation or so past. This is confirmed time and time again by teachers who have taught both generations.
Such is the price we pay for believing there is something new under the sun.
Questions of general interest may be sent to John Rosemond at P.O. Box 4124, Gastonia, N.C. 28054 and at http://www.rosemond.com/parenting on the World Wide Web.
If you or someone you know has parenting problems, call the Parents Anonymous 24-hour confidential Help-Line at 892-2172.