Self-esteem is not a gift - it cannot be given

Parenting in 2009 is really hard – even my mother says so. Every decision is scrutinized and “what’s best” for the child seems to always be the goal. What ever happened to Winnicott’s notion of a “good-enough mother”? I ask this because there is so much angst in parenting today. What are we worrying about? Why are we trying to make all of the “best” decisions?

It’s all about “self-esteem.” Seems like a good goal, but people are going about it in really strange ways. All too often I hear things like:

  •  Too much competition can hurt self-esteem.
  •  Being the youngest in a class can be hard for him.
  • Being the oldest/biggest/strongest boy will make him more confident.
  • Taking “enrichment” classes after school will make her feel smarter.

Really? The older/bigger/stronger kids know they have an advantage. The younger/smaller/wiry kids know they have to work harder, be more diligent, or run faster to effectively compete. We’re not fooling anyone. I’m all for providing help when help is needed, but what about providing challenges as learning opportunities?

My two oldest children are VERY different from one another, but I’ve seen this self-esteem machine in action with them both. Lilah, my oldest, doesn’t like to sweat. But, she attended swim lessons weekly from the time she was 3, worked hard, and earned a series of ribbons, culminating in the Gold Ribbon (think Holy Grail) just before she turned 7. This meant that she had mastered all 4 major swim strokes, a long underwater swim, and a racing dive. The pride she felt and displayed was beautiful. She accomplished something difficult and she knew it – her self-esteem blossomed. By contrast, my son is a natural athlete. He could bounce down a trampoline at 18-months and the training wheels came off his bike 2-weeks after he turned 4 (and boy was he proud). This summer, my emotionally intense, often in-trouble son, has grown in strength, pride, and self-esteem by running hard, working as a member of a team, and doing his best in sports activities with kids older than him. His coaches have had high (but within reach) expectations and so far, he’s met them. He clearly feels better about himself and his behavior has been much more under control (maybe it’s the exhaustion).

With “good-enough” parenting and high expectations, our kids can blossom. Children feel good about themselves when they are challenged, work hard, and accomplish something that makes them feel proud. Self-esteem must be earned – It is not a gift and it cannot be given.