I heard a speaker talk about the book The Self Esteem Trap this weekend. It is actually written by a Buddhist but it seems to have some insights. It talks about the emphasis placed on building up children and making them feel special. She argues that it does not produce better or happier adults.
Today's children and young adults are suffering from a number of symptoms, including obsessive self-focus, restless dissatisfaction, pressures to be exceptional, unreadiness to accept responsibilities and feelings of either superiority or inferiority. According to the author, instead of contentment and positive self-regard, kids raised to believe they are extraordinary or special are more likely to be unhappy and disappointed.This really resonated with me. People of our generation are not willing face their sin or admit their failure. Often they blame their parents for much of it because they were punished for this or for that. They think they can raise kids so much better by just being positive. It does not work. Kids are too smart. They figure out when they are getting junk praise. That is adults who would never say their effort was poor even when it obviously was poor. They handle it in different ways. None of them very good.
It goes hand in hand with religious movements of the same time. Guilt was declared to be the biggest evil. That had to be avoided even at the cost of making what the person did wrong unclear. The reality is guilt and failure are some of our strongest motivators. They need to be properly formed but they should not be removed entirely. When we try we do people a great disservice. The good news is we can't really get rid of guilt. We can raise kids to have no language to express guilt and failure but we can't raise them not to feel those things. Those are just part of being human. We can tell people they did nothing wrong and not to feel guilty but they still feel that way and then they feel additional guilt for feeling guilty. They need to learn to distinguish legitimate guilt for real sin from a phoney guilt trip someone else tries to impose on you. Then when the guilt is real they need to learn how to turn that into positive change.
However, the choice offered by this author is a false one. She says we have to choose between telling our kids they are extraordinary or telling them they are ordinary. She argues for the ordinary option. I do think Christianity gives you a way to do both. Each child is extraordinary but not in comparison with other children. They are extraordinary because they are loved by God and have access to the grace of God. Therefore they can do amazing things. They are ordinary because they sin. They struggle with the same pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust that we all do. There is nothing special about our sin. There is something special about how God made us. Again, taking nothing away from how special God made the next kid. God has enough amazing stuff to gift us all.
So we should not give up on telling our kids they are special. But we should give up on the junk praise. The stuff we come out with just to give their self esteem a boost that really isn't accurate. Speak the truth in love. Even when it comes to the hard failures we should not protect our kids. They say you learn to ride a horse in seven falls. We need to let them take their falls and be there to bandage their knees. If we keep them from falling it will just mean a bigger and more painful fall later in life. Then who knows where they will go for comfort? They won't go to you if they think you think they are perfect.