To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I have long seen, and continue to see, articles about self-esteem.

Here's one: Self-esteem not a good teaching tool

Turns out children are feeling pretty good about themselves lately. Maybe a little too good.

A recent study by researchers at San Diego State University found that high school seniors are bursting with more self-esteem than a generation or two ago. For example, in 1975, 49 percent of them believed they would be successful at their jobs.

Today 65 percent do.

Instilling that "world, here I come!" attitude is a great thing. Instilling baseless self-congratulation? Less so. Yet I have to admit that I have a hard time figuring out when to say, "What a wonderful letter you wrote for grandma!" and when to go, "Do you think you could possibly put one ounce of effort into your thank-you note?"

There have been various proponents of self-esteem over the years, ranging from Nathaniel Branden, onetime close friend and "intellectual heir" of Ayn Rand, to James Dobson, who wrote Hide or Seek in the early 1970's. Somewhere along the way, the idea of self-esteem became subsumed into the kinds of you're-so-wonderful-just-because-you're-you statements we associate with Mr. Rogers, and then, in that simplistic form, worked into education theory for kids through high school age - that is, if you believe articles like the above mentioned.

Count me as one of those people who think that self-esteem is very important. I think you can figure out what a person's self-image is by inviting them to complete this statement: "I am the kind of person who...." And I think it's important that the person's self-image, while moderately realistic, is generally positive. "I'm the kind of person who gets the job done." "I'm the kind of person who is compulsive about getting all my schoolwork finished and turned in on time." "I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I'm the kind of person who worries at my math homework until I understand it, no matter how long it takes." Why only moderately realistic? I don't think it hurts for people to stretch themselves. If a person of average intelligence thinks "I'm pretty smart", she will probably challenge herself by taking the more difficult courses in school. She may not make grades better than C, but she'll definitely get to the limit of her natural ability; she'll learn a lot of stuff, possibly surprise her teachers, and if nothing else, be an interesting and engaged person.

I have read and absorbed some of the caveats about the kind of general praising you're not supposed to do. So I've tried to be both accurate and specific about the positive feedback I've given my daughter. "I'm proud of your hard work and the way you stuck with that tedious project until you got it finished," for instance. (There are those who say I shouldn't have said "I'm proud" because I wasn't letting her have ownership; shoot me.) This is the answer to Ms. Skenazy's dilemma about the letter to Grandma, by the way, and one might incorporate one of the things I learned in management training: say "and" instead of "but". "I see that you've written a thank-you note to Grandma. She'll be happy to get that. It looks very nice. And maybe you could add a sentence about how you love the color and you can't wait to wear it to school." Now you haven't griped or carped and you've expressed to the kid exactly what you'd like to see (which you can't depend upon the kid reading your mind to figure out; "put more effort" is basically meaningless).

I'll add that there is a time and a place for unconditional love. Your kid does something immature or even dishonest, he comes to you about it dreading the consequences, and the first words out of your mouth are, "We'll get through this." Dr. Dobson said somewhere, possibly in Hide or Seek, that in his practice he saw parents who put a lot of pressure on their kids to excel academically and sometimes the kids just simply didn't have the raw brain power to do it. He imagined parents at the sidelines of a footrace, screaming "You can do it! You're just not trying hard enough! I think you want to embarrass us!" to their kid struggling behind all of his peers with leg braces from having polio. Dobson said that if he had a little boy or girl who couldn't excel in school, he'd help them find a field where they could excel. The movie "Dead Poets Society" has a protagonist who commits suicide because his father can't accept him unless he is fulfilling his father's own self-image of having a son who is like this and like that. Unconditional love means that you want the kid to be who he or she is, to be the best he can be, and you love him for who he is, not what he does for you. If the parents of my hypothetical C-student in the previous paragraph love her unconditionally, they'll appreciate and enjoy her can-do spirit and encourage her to continue to value learning over her grade-point average.

So self-esteem is important. I think people are sometimes prevented from doing stupid, dishonest, or immoral things because their self-respect is more important than whatever they would have gained. And I don't see how it could be wrong to bolster that kind of thing in a person, by pointing out positive character traits when possible.

I also think that one of the unwanted outcomes of the War on Poverty is that some people got the self-image that they couldn't make it on their own like other people; they had to be supported by the government. Then you had multiple generations born on welfare and that same pernicious self-image passed down. This is one of the reasons why welfare reform, undoubtedly frightening and painful as it has been for some people, was sorely needed. What would the pioneers have said? "I am the kind of person who finds a way to provide for myself and my family, no matter what. I can stand on my own two feet in any situation. We may not be rich but we'll get along." Except for people who are disabled to the point that they can't survive without help, it's un-American for adults to be allowed or even encouraged to think that in the field of making a living, putting a roof over their heads and food on the table and paying their bills, they just can't cut it. They've lost an important part of their heritage, IMO.

I also have to wonder about that 51% of kids in 1975 who didn't think they'd be successful on their jobs. What in the world is that about?

Here is a better article:

The most awful, stupid parenting advice

Maybe a good parenting question is: When to help and when to leave them alone? A better formulation would be: How do you know when the child/person should know what to do so you should leave him/her alone and how do you know when that person is in over his or her head?

It's a good, thoughtful, useful article that doesn't rehash the same stuff we've seen over and over. It's true that kids aren't born knowing everything about getting along in the world and acting like a civilized person. Some pick up things like social cues very easily and others need explicit explanations about how to act. Individual kids need different levels of parental guidance at different ages, too. Parenting books and articles are useful for getting ideas about how to handle things, and what might be going on in your kid's head, but you have to know your own child and run all that stuff past your common sense. (I am the kind of person who pays attention to my kid and thinks about the long-term consequences of the way I help her grow as a person.) Some people, like John Rosemond, think parents over-think. It's my view that parenting done right requires some thought.

And that really is the answer to the self-esteem thing. Think about your kid. Think about what's going on with him and what direction you'd like him to develop in, and how you can help him go there. Getting more patience, or being more persistent, or slowing down and being more thoughtful, or being more forceful with his peers, whatever it is. Nurture a positive, healthy, moderately realistic self-image by verbally holding up a mirror to reflect back to the kid those traits you want to encourage.

Disclaimer regarding parenting advice from me: Once again, the definition of "expert" is "parent of one child". It's possible that if I'd had two I wouldn't have dared open my mouth on the subject.


Deb said...

Laura, when my daughters were growing up (well, they're still in teh process) it was all about being "gifted." They tested the kids in elementray school for this "Target" program, for extra smart kids. my older daughter usually just missed the cutoff and she really wanted to be in that program. In what might have been my one wise parenting moment, I told her that every single kid was gifted in some way, that some gifts could be measured in a test and some could not. I told her she had the kind of gift that could not be tested for. I was right about that. She is bright enough but not a genius. She is extremely happy, upbeat, resiliant. She weathers disappointments better than anyone I know. I like to think maybe that little piece of wisdom made a difference to her. Nobody I know has better self esteem than my older daughter.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

Deb, so many of the elementary-school-aged "gifted" kids get sifted out by the time they get to college. What I've seen with my daughter and her peers, and with people I've worked with, is that you need enough basic smarts to perform your tasks; after that it's not the smarter people that necessarily land on top, it's the people who have a good work ethic and a good attitude. For instance, one of the most important gifts a person can have is the ability to call out the best in other people by encouraging, rebuking kindly when necessary, and helping to build the team. That doesn't correlate to performance on the "gifted" tests in elementary school. So you were spot-on in what you told your daughter.

Also, the kinds of enrichment things they do in the gifted program are the things any parent can do: get cool books from the library, go to see the Shakespeare play when the troupe comes into town (we saw "A Midsummer Night's Dream" like that when F was a high school freshman), sign up for continuing-ed art or pottery programs, and so forth. It's more meaningful when you do it for fun with your family than when you have to do it for a grade, anyway.