The myth of positive self-esteem
There is a lot of talk today about self-esteem. Parents are careful to build it in their children. People seek it for themselves. Therapists encourage it in their clients. Does it help? Can you build it? What is it you are trying to build when you build “self-esteem?”
People who talk about building positive self-esteem in a child are often trying to cure the child from the feeling of a “bad self.” Or, they are trying to prevent the child from developing a “bad self” in the first place by having the child see himself solely in a positive light. This is a confusing idea for several reasons.
First, it places the security of the child at risk by basing it on her positive performance. The concept of self-esteem hinges on a child’s being able to see herself positively. What happens when her performance is not positive? What happens when she fails?
If the goal is to see ourselves in a “good” way, what will we do with failure? Hide it? Explain it away? Rationalize it? Deny it? How can we maintain this “positive view” in the light of sin, badness and failure? One answer is to have more positive than negative. Another is to have others always building us up. None of these ends up with the only security that protects us from any possible failure — love.
A better way than seeing ourselves as good is seeing ourselves as loved. A child who is loved as herself, both good and bad, does not need to see herself as positive or negative. She sees herself as loved, and the whole issue goes away. A loved self is stronger than a positive self; the child doesn’t need to worry about losing her “good self.” She doesn’t need to hide or deny what she does. No matter how she performs, she will be loved.
Everyone is created in God’s image and has incredible value to him. We are both image bearers and sinners. We are beautiful at times and not so pretty at other times. The real question is where the safety comes from that allows us to be all that we are. And the Bible’s answer to that is love. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)
The Cure: Safe Enough to be Real
Making children feel bad does not motivate them to do better. Nor does making them feel good guard them from all of life’s pitfalls. The answer to the self-esteem problem is this: Give them a combination of grace and truth, and they will feel safe enough to be real. The cure to the problem of self-image, self-concept and self-esteem is to have enough grace to be who one really is.
Your children need, above all, to develop a “real” self. They need enough grace to face and bring into relationship who they really are at any given moment. They need to know that it is okay to fail, to hurt, or to be less than perfect. They need to feel secure in bringing their bad parts to relationship.
If they can be real, their pains and problems can be cured. There is no problem that the grace and guidance of a loving parent cannot get them through. But if they do not feel that they can be who they really are, then their problems never get solved. They just get hidden away to grow into bigger cancers.
From Raising Great Kids by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Zondervan, 1999
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