The Cult of Self-Esteem

I don’t have (make?) much time for reading lately, but recently Tim handed me a copy of July/August’s The Atlantic and said “there’s an article in here I really think you should read.” When he handed it to me, again, a week later repeating his request I knew it was time to take him seriously (not that I didn’t {take him seriously} before, but I knew that I needed to do it sooner rather than later). The article he wanted me to read, headlining the magazine’s cover that month, was entitled “How the cult of self-esteem is ruining our kids“, and it had me nervous.
“Why?” you ask. Because I had the feeling I was about to read something telling me that the way I had been parenting- that the style which {in my estimation} came naturally to me- was screwing up my kid, and I was not really looking forward to that.

For those who haven’t/don’t want to read this article here’s the short version of what it’s all about: Parental obsession with our childrens’ happiness (the desire, the need, to protect them from all the unhappiness and unpleasantness in the world, the belief that everything, and everyone, should be praised) may be dooming them to a life of unhappiness as an adult; that “attuned” parents might actually be doing more harm than good, creating overly narcissistic, fragile, and ambivalent adults. Yikes.

But I read on. And I ended up highlighting (!).

The funny thing was that many of the passages/quotes I highlighted I related to less as a parent and more as a…well…a person struggling with my own future, and future career specifically. Double yikes.

‘Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing,’ Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College, told me [the article’s author]. ‘But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.’

See the distinction there? Me either; at least not clearly. Yet it is precisely this distinction that motivates me lately. Do I write this blog because it makes me happy or because I want to be happy and I think this writing might lead to that happiness? Do I meal plan and recipe search and shop at the farmers’ market because it makes me happy or am I happy because I allow myself the time to do those things? Does it matter, if in the end I’m happy? If I seek work, hobbies, activities, company that makes me happy am I doing it for the wrong reason? I don’t know.

‘If we want our kids to grow up and be more independent, then we should prepare our kids to leave us every day.’ But that’s a big if. Blume believes that many of us today don’t really want our kids to leave, because we rely on them in various ways to fill the emotional holes in our own lives. Kindlon and Mogel both told me the same thing. Yes, we devote inordinate amounts of time, energy, and resources to our children, but for whose benefit? ‘We’re confusing our own needs with our kids’ needs and calling it good parenting.’

Ah, ha. There is is. As I thought about this further (and read  some commentaries on the article, like this one in particular) I came to realize that it’s not really self-esteem that’s ruining our kids it’s us and (coming from a completely untrained observer) our lack thereof. What I mean is it is our own personal issues, our own struggles with happiness, that might ultimately lead to the kind of problems the author describes seeing in her patients.

“Kindlon also observed that because we tend to have fewer kids than past generations of parents did, each becomes more precious. So we demand more from them—more companionship, more achievement, more happiness. Which is where the line between selflessness (making our kids happy) and selfishness (making ourselves happy) becomes especially thin.

‘We want our kids to be happy living the life we envision for them—the banker who’s happy, the surgeon who’s happy,’ Barry Schwartz, the Swarthmore social scientist, told me, even though those professions ‘might not actually make them happy.’ At least for parents of a certain demographic (and if you’re reading this article, you’re likely among them), ‘we’re not so happy if our kids work at Walmart but show up each day with a smile on their faces,’ Schwartz says. ‘They’re happy, but we’re not. Even though we say what we want most for our kids is their happiness, and we’ll do everything we can to help them achieve that, it’s unclear where parental happiness ends and our children’s happiness begins.’

So, with some distance I think I’m actually able to see what this means for me in my own parenting practice: I will not rush to Eleanor’s side every time she falls before giving her time to decide whether she’s actually hurt, but I will comfort her if she ultimately cries and I will validate her feelings when she expresses them and help her find healthy ways to both identify and deal with them.  I will not contact her teacher when she fails a test demanding that she be allowed to take I again, but we will talk about why it happened, and how she can do better next time.  I will give her choices when it seems reasonable to do so, but I will not make her be responsible for my own indecision. And I will do what I can to help her find that thing in life which brings happiness as a result of simply living, without making this the goal of living. I hope to do so by watching her, observing her talents, skills, and requests rather than requiring that she fit neatly into any image I have of her as an adult. I think I can do this; I think that Tim and I both can. And, I think the first step in doing this for her, is doing it for me.

8 thoughts on “The Cult of Self-Esteem

  1. Kiyah,I read this article recently, and shared it with Patty. The title is provocative for any parent. It grabs your attention, but there is a simultaneous reluctance to “look in the mirror”.


    1. Very true, Dave. One commentary I read suggested that this article appeared in The Atlantic precisely because it is Atlantic readers (and none others) that parent this way; and who want to seem as though they are acknowledging their potential parenting faults without being scolded for them. I don’t know that I agree, but I do think regardless of the reason one chooses to read this article there are important lessons to be learned. No matter how old your children are.


  2. “And, I think the first step in doing this for her, is doing it for me.” — You are well on your way, dear friend.
    And while I didn’t open your blog at work with happiness as my goal, it definitely brought a smile to my face….Thanks for sharing the article and your thoughts.


  3. This rings sooo true with what I’ve learned in a mindfulness course I just completed. I’d love to tell you all about it over coffee and tea sometime soon, but it seems like the gist of this article is right in line with the being-present-non-striving-ness of mindful living. I know of at least one book about incorporating mindfulness practices into parenting (both in how you parent and how to help your children incorporate these practices into their lives also). I’ll find the titles and pass them along…great post, Kiyah.


  4. I nearly didn’t graduate on-time after receiving a failing grade in a required class. When my teacher contacted my mother about his concerns, he was surprised by her response: if I don’t let her see the consequences of her actions she will never learn from them. The experience taught me much. I have learned to be content both in my successes and what most people would consider failures. Each learning experience has made me a stronger, more open minded woman. Now, I watch my almost two year old, and it’s hard to watch him struggle, but he knows when he falls, he can get back up again.


    1. Ruth,Thank you for sharing your very personal experience. It seems like your mom did what was harder, but arguably better for you in the long run. May we all learn from her example!


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