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

Published: Tuesday, June 30 2015 2:49 a.m. MDT

 (Shutterstock) (Shutterstock)

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."

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.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company