A Window into Life in the Suburbs

"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these." Luke 12:27 (NIV)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Self Esteem Gone Astern

I've never really bought into the self-esteem movement especially as it relates to parenting and children. Perhaps it's my upbringing showing forth its stripes but it always seemed to me that self-esteem as pop psychology was more about massaging egos rather than a properly conceived philosophy in teaching children resilience against the stark realities of life. More importantly, there doesn't seem to be any biblical basis for it. I imagine that it came about primarily as a reaction to authoritarian forms of parenting, paired with the notion that "being happy" is the ultimate goal in life.

Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherpist has written an engaging article questioning some cherished notions of happiness-based parenting published in The Atlantic recently. As this goes to the core of culture and conventional wisdom, I expect that it will and has raised hackles. Here's an extract:

A few months ago, I called up Jean Twenge, a co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic and professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has written extensively about narcissism and self-esteem. She told me she wasn’t surprised that some of my patients reported having very happy childhoods but felt dissatisfied and lost as adults. When ego-boosting parents exclaim “Great job!” not just the first time a young child puts on his shoes but every single morning he does this, the child learns to feel that everything he does is special. Likewise, if the kid participates in activities where he gets stickers for “good tries,” he never gets negative feedback on his performance. (All failures are reframed as “good tries.”) According to Twenge, indicators of self-esteem have risen consistently since the 1980s among middle-school, high-school, and college students. But, she says, what starts off as healthy self-esteem can quickly morph into an inflated view of oneself—a self-absorption and sense of entitlement that looks a lot like narcissism. In fact, rates of narcissism among college students have increased right along with self-esteem.
Meanwhile, rates of anxiety and depression have also risen in tandem with self-esteem. Why is this? “Narcissists are happy when they’re younger, because they’re the center of the universe,” Twenge explains. “Their parents act like their servants, shuttling them to any activity they choose and catering to their every desire. Parents are constantly telling their children how special and talented they are. This gives them an inflated view of their specialness compared to other human beings. Instead of feeling good about themselves, they feel better than everyone else.”(p.3)
Definitely worth reading.


  1. Actually I've just read a book (Nurture Shock) that says the opposite (and cites many pieces of research to back it up). Stroking their self-esteem apparently makes them more fragile and less likely to take chances, because they become addicted to the praise and afraid that they aren't really as great as people are saying. Especially the "you're smart" one. It is better, they say, to use specific praise, eg. "you've worked hard to find the solution to that problem".

  2. I don't think they're saying different things but perhaps the NutureShock people are highlighting research that point to the downside of self-esteemism starting a lot earlier.


Let me know what you think!