Build self-esteem by encouraging kids to “go for it”

One of the biggest mistakes parents can make is to tell their young kids to not get “a big head”—implying, “Don’t think too much of yourself.” Then, years later, they’re surprised and disappointed when their children lack the ambition to so much as pass an algebra course, apply to college or compete for a good job.

The young adults who succeed are the ones who ignore this bad advice or, better yet, never got it to begin with. Certainly, children should be discouraged from pretending they have abilities they clearly don’t have, or aren’t willing to develop. They shouldn’t be told that they’re greater than they really are, either. But if parents would refrain from telling their children not to develop self-confidence and pride, these kids would have no emotional need to make things up or misrepresent themselves.

There’s increasing talk among child experts about the growth of narcissism, or ‘conceit,’ in young people. Family psychologist John Rosemond (writing for Knight Ridder newspapers) offers an interesting and provocative theory: ‘Today’s parents, with more than a little assistance from grandparents, turn their children into greedy little materialists by buying them toy after toy after gadget after game after vehicle after gizmo beginning before they’re born and lasting forever and ever, amen. Because today’s parents feed the narcissistic spark that resides in the heart of every newborn, it grows into a flame, then a fire, and then a raging inferno. By age four or five, today’s all-too-typical child is infected with ‘King Midas Syndrome,’ which is to say, he’s a greedy little hoarder who can’t share unless forced to do so, which is to say, he can’t really share at all.’

Rosemond makes a fascinating point, but I don’t think the root problem is ‘too many toys.’ My experience suggests that some kids simply don’t think enough of themselves, their minds, and their capacity to do great things. A confident and self-responsible person doesn’t want other people to do things for him; he wants to do as much for himself as possible. Parents are indeed mistaken if they ‘throw toys at the problem’ of trying to raise a mentally sound child. Toys are great, and I’m all for material things within reason, but children have to first know how to use their minds. This includes, but is not limited to, reading books (remember them?), discussing with adults and their peers what they read, watching TV shows/movies and analyzing them, engaging in creative and abstract play (without toys in some cases), and taking part in daily discussions at dinner time. This is something that has, regrettably, just about disappeared from family life. Then there’s the issue of sharing. Sharing is all well and good, but it’s not good to instill needless guilt in children either. First of all, if something really belongs to your child, no other child has a right to lay claim to it out of guilt. Sharing is not some out-of-context duty to be blindly followed. Secondly, the option of sharing—and it IS an option—is not even a factor until a child has something to share. A young person has to first develop confidence, love and respect for life before he or she can even begin to address sharing, which is, at best, only a secondary concern. Lay off the guilt. Don’t blame the apparent growth of narcissism on self-esteem. Self-esteem is more important—and more desperately needed—than ever. Adults who, in narcissistic fashion, need to make things up about themselves, never developed self-esteem to begin with. They could have actually used ‘bigger heads,’ if having a “big head” means being ambitious and taking responsibility for actively developing your talents and interests. Instead of telling kids not to develop big heads, challenge them to “go for it!” In other words, “You’re interested in something? Great. Then plan it out. You can do just about anything you want to do, if you put the work and thought into it. If you don’t do the work and thought, it’s never going to happen.” Where many parents go wrong is that they short-circuit their kids’ sense-of-self by doing too much for them.

It’s not my intention to leave young people with the impression that I’m over-generalizing. I regularly encounter teens and adolescents who are self-responsible and quite confident in their minds—against all odds, given some of today’s cultural trends. Yet, it seems there are more kids than ever before who don’t seem to know how to find their way in life, to act decisively, and to avoid being—quite frankly—nasty little brats.

So, parents: Don’t discourage kids from working to cultivate self-esteem and justifiable regard for themselves. Narcissism and ‘brattiness’ are not caused by ‘too much’ self-esteem—but too little of it. And, after the parents are long gone, those kids are going to need all the self-esteem they can earn when they’re out there in today’s challenging world, all on their own.