Intense focus on self-esteem by American parents has benefits, drawbacks

By Whitney Evans

Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 8 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT


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Mory Caraway struggled to know how best to raise his son Evan. A single father, he only saw his son every other weekend and on some holidays. Caraway, living in Utah and at the time a customer service representative for Delta, decided the most important thing Evan should get from their limited time together was a sense of his own worth and a knowledge that he was loved.

Caraway attended Evan's swim meets and cheered him on, regardless of whether he finished first or 20th.

Single parents like Caraway can struggle to determine which parenting approach is best for them and their children. Philosophies vary, ranging from the accomplishment-oriented approach embraced by Tiger Moms like author Aimee Chua to the French parenting style advocated by Pam Druckerman, who promotes self-control and delay of gratification at early ages. Also, a growing number of parents have raised concerns about the American approach of focusing too much on building the child's self-esteem, and shielding them from failure or risks.

One researcher argues that none of these approaches are necessarily right or wrong; rather, they are subjective depending on which society they belong to.

"Other cultures' methods of instilling self-control do actually work," said Sandra Aamodt, former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience and co-author of the book "Welcome to Your Child's Brain: How the Mind Grows From Conception to College." "Those different approaches to training produce different types of adults. You want to raise your kids to be good members of the society they live in."

Although studies vary as to the role low self-esteem plays in a child's development, the correlation with eating disorders, depression, drug addiction and feelings of low self-worth is evidence of the potential damages of low self-esteem.

However, some experts disagree in which causes the other: Do accomplishments create high self-esteem, or does high self-esteem enable a child to accomplish more?

Aamodt argues the former and says American parents need to teach their children self-control as a means of enabling them to accomplish their goals.

"People who achieve things get self-esteem as a benefit," Aamodt said.

Robert Kelsey, author of "What's Stopping You," argues that children internalize their sense of self-worth at an early age. If they do not develop their high self-esteem as children, it is more difficult for them to feel innately valuable as they get older. Those with low self-esteem, he said, often sabotage their own efforts because they are so afraid of failing to meet the expectations of others. Kelsey has developed a theory of high fear of failure. This builds on the premise that those who do not have high self-esteem are often disorganized, procrastinate and experience serious lack of success. In essence, they do not succeed because they either do not try or set unrealistically high goals.

Kelsey's expertise stemmed from his own low self-esteem and insecurity he said is a product of having an overly critical and emotionally unresponsive father. This motivated him to research the root causes of his chronic failure and use his journalistic background to explore his findings. For years he has researched everything from the effect of motivational speakers to help individuals achieve goals to studies on self-esteem and motivation. He now sees the primary role of a parent as ensuring a child's positive sense of self-worth.

"If you attack someone's self-esteem at an early age you create an innate insecurity within them. An insecurity that will dog their whole lives, no matter what their achievements," Kelsey said. "What you can't learn is that innate sense of security."

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