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

By Whitney Evans

Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Aug. 9 2012 2:29 a.m. MDT

This sense of security was something he learned to develop in his own life over time and is the result of receiving unconditional love, in his case from his wife. Kelsey said his father, an engineer, constantly berated him and told him he would not be able to achieve similar academic accolades. Rather than instilling a sense of confidence and security in his son, Kelsey thinks his father's criticism played a key role in Kelsey's insecurities. As a result, Kelsey said he experienced a series of academic and career failures.

Growing up in the United Kingdom, Kelsey said he saw many British parents acting similarly to his father when he was young. He remembers meeting Americans and being impressed by how confident they were. In contrast, children who have parents overly focused on their success do not have innate self-esteem, he said — it is self-esteem based on their accomplishments.

"Withholding praise from kids makes them feel insecure. They spend their entire lives trying to win their parents' approval." Kelsey said. "That is not self-esteem. That is overachieving. That is insecure overachieving."

Parents' over-emphasis on high achievement in their children sends the child the message that they only their value hinges on what they achieve, Kelsey said. Often the emphasis on excelling says more about the desires of the parent than those of the child, he found.

"The Tiger Mother approach creates 99 losers for every winner," Kelsey said, adding that even the winner does not often find true happiness and is actually only able to turn insecurity into a false sense of pride, which hinges on achieving one goal after another.

Because of this intense focus on accomplishment, many people avoid the realistic but achievable goals in their life, Kelsey said. Instead, they set goals that are either too low — making it almost impossible to fail — or extraordinarily high, earning them praise for trying and making their failure more understandable.

"What people are avoiding doing with low self-esteem is that middle distance of accomplishing achievable goals," Kelsey said.

Carol Dweck, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford, conducted a series of experiments in which she and other researchers measured the effects of praising children because of their innate talent or brilliance versus telling them they did well because they worked hard. Known as fixed mindset and growth mindset respectively, the studies showed over time that those who internalized the growth mindset (after being praised for working hard) were often more willing to try harder tasks and were more able to cope with difficulties and setbacks.

Kelsey agrees with Carol Dweck that children need to learn the growth-mindset, but feels that can be learned at a later age. For instance, he and his wife have a 7-year-old boy who he admits they have sheltered from feeling the effects of failure. At this point, his son is a "poor loser," but according to Kelsey, this is easily fixed.

"He thinks he's absolutely brilliant at everything and I love that," Kelsey said. "So we can teach him the need to learn from his failures, rather than collapse. But his self-esteem is pure gold."

For instance, if a parent praises a child for trying after a fall off a bike, it does not follow that the child will instantly think he or she is a great cyclist, Kelsey said. Instead, the praise will provide the confidence to get up and try again. Rather than being a crutch for children that keeps them from progressing, high self-esteem teaches them that they are still worthwhile even if they fail.

"The problem with fear of failure isn't failure — it's fear," Kelsey said.

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