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Too Much Self-Esteem?

When Ellen De Money, a mom of three in Boulder, Colorado, caught her son Jordan's friends being rude to their soccer coach  -- who just happened to be her husband  -- she gave the 7-year-olds a little lecture about respecting adults and then asked them to apologize.

A few days later, one of the kids' moms told De Money that she was taking her son off the team because De Money "had hurt his feelings and he was very upset." Then she said, "He did not feel special that day."

Absurd as her statement sounds, it's not surprising that this mom's priorities would be so mixed up, given the message we're bombarded with daily: Our kids' self-esteem is of utmost importance and everything possible should be done to boost and preserve it.

Consider some of the lyrics kids hear on TV. Barney chants, "I was born very special and I'm special now and it's nice just to be me/My tummy, my chin, and even my skin make me special all of the time," while Big Bird croons, "Me, me, wonderful me/Who says I'm right even when I am wrong?/Me, me, wonderful me."

But wait a minute: Our kids are special, and they should have plenty of self-esteem  -- right? Well, yes, but like so many good things in life (chocolate, Chardonnay), too much of it can wreak havoc. Having been flabbergasted at times by the displays of self-importance and entitlement from my 7-year-old and her pals, I wonder whether perhaps those endless ego-boosting messages aren't sinking into our children's psyches  -- and ours  -- just a little too deeply.

I'm not suggesting that a healthy ego is inherently bad; certainly, low self-esteem isn't a suitable goal either. But due to a mix of permissive parenting, school agendas, and pop psychology, the "love thyself" message has taken over to the point where it's begun to backfire. Today's kids are often impossibly self-absorbed, yet fragile. By smothering them with positive messages about themselves, we may have kept them from developing some basic and important emotional survival tools.

Psychologists Laura Smith, Ph.D., and Charles Elliott, Ph.D., coauthors of Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth, use the analogy of a balloon to illustrate the effects of low, too-high, and just-right levels of self-esteem: "An empty balloon is useless," says Elliott. "An overly full one is vulnerable to popping. A medium-full one is resilient as well as functional."

How did we end up with so many overly full balloons on our hands? And how can we bring them back down to earth?

Christina Frank writes frequently for Parenting and is the mom of Olivia, 7, and 3-year-old Lucy.

The "Everyone Wins" Phenomenon

Jen Singer, a mom of two boys in Kinnelon, New Jersey, recalls an exercise in her older son's pre-K class. "The teacher asked the kids to think up any question at all, and she posted them on the wall outside the classroom. One read: 'Why did I get a trophy for karate when I hardly ever went there?'" Good question. The answer is that, like so many instructors and coaches, this one felt it was more important to reward everyone than to be honest.

These days, everyone's a winner. Some kids are so used to it, they get confused if they don't get a prize just for showing up. "Our school parents' association held a pizza-and-bingo fund-raiser, and those who won at bingo got a prize," says Leah Ingram, a mother of two girls in New Hope, Pennsylvania. "My first-grader kept asking if at the end of the night all the kids would get prizes, just for being good sports. I told her, 'No. In the real world some people win and some people lose.'"

Yep  -- and some kids are better students than others. But many elementary schools' curricula have built-in self-esteem programs. Classrooms use a "child-centered" approach; grades aren't used, so no one feels like a poor student; and reading-group levels are disguised so that more advanced readers don't stand out. The result is that kids who would've been driven to excel think, "Why bother?" and those who aren't doing very well have no clue that they need to work harder. "It pushes a child to be mediocre," says Smith.

The irony is that most children don't buy all this sugarcoating. "My kids can't stand it when everyone wins and no one's allowed to excel," says De Money. "They want to work toward a goal."

"Recognizing achievement is important, and it doesn't mean you have to make the other kids feel bad," says Kathleen Vohs, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. "Kids can understand that they'll be better at some things than others, and it'll help them to cope with it as they get older."

Discipline Fears

Admit it: You've caved to your child's demands more than a few times to avoid a meltdown. I've done it, we've all done it. (Case in point: I have a "no eating in the living room" rule. Yet right now my kids are mindlessly distributing pretzel crumbs over every inch of the sofa.) Were our own parents this spineless? Highly doubtful.

Remember when Mom and Dad were in charge? When they made rules that kids were a little scared not to obey? Today many of us somehow believe that inflicting rules and discipline is mean, and if we do it, we feel guilty. With grown-ups walking on eggshells around them, how could kids not think their happiness is paramount?

"I've seen so many parents treating their children like the world revolved around them," says Kristin Cole, a mother of two boys, 7 and 2, in Montclair, New Jersey. "Once, I was sitting in the park with some other moms. One woman's toddler was hungry and nobody had a snack except the mom of a six-year-old. That mom offered the snack to the toddler, but then took it back because she wasn't sure how her child would feel about sharing. Lunacy!"

It's hard to watch your kid melt down or be disappointed, but it's important for him to go through it sometimes and then realize that it's not the end of the world. "Children are naturally egocentric from birth, and part of the task of parenting is to put curbs and limits on them so they can become self-controlled, empathetic adults," says Elliott.

By not shielding your child from unpleasant emotions, you're doing him a great favor. For one, kids who don't experience a full range of emotions may have a harder time handling anxiety and depression as adults. And studies have shown that self-control and the ability to tolerate frustration are far more important than self-esteem in terms of success in life.

The truth is, you can avoid limits and discipline all you want at home, but eventually someone out in the real world will hold your child responsible for his actions  -- and it'll likely be a rude awakening.

Balancing Praise and Criticism

I confess I have waxed rhapsodic over my two girls' most trivial accomplishments  -- only to rue the day. Now, if I don't rave every time they drag a crayon across a sheet of paper, they hound me until I do.

What I've discovered is that it's not necessary to hand out accolades just because your child finished her oatmeal. In fact, swooning over ordinary achievements makes praise for truly impressive ones meaningless. So keep the kudos for minor accomplishments vague  -- for instance, you can say "Nice" or "Interesting" in response to your daughter's hundredth stick-figure drawing and save the "Brilliant!" for when she builds a mini-Taj Mahal out of Legos.

One downside of overpraising is that it can create a child who gives up easily. If you're always telling your child how intelligent she is, she may be scared to face challenges, fearing that if she can't master them, it'll prove she's not really that smart. The key is to stress effort over achievement, to focus on the process rather than the end result, says Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., coauthor of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. So if your child works on a puzzle and finishes it quickly, say, "You tried so hard!" rather than "You're so smart!" Even if she can't solve the puzzle, praise her effort, because that's what really matters.

There is a place for praise to be used sensibly: when giving constructive criticism. Say your daughter's become bossy toward her friends and you want to make her aware of it. Frame critical statements with approving ones. You might say, "Sara, you're a great friend. You share your toys and you're thoughtful. But lately I've noticed you've been a bit bossy. If you were a little less bossy, you'd be an even better friend. I know you can do it if you try."

When using this technique, Kathleen Vohs points out that it's important to keep both the positive and the negative statements in the same "domain"  -- meaning that you shouldn't say "You're a good friend, but you stink at softball." And be specific about what needs improvement  -- in this case, focusing on the bossiness rather than simply announcing, "You haven't been such a good friend lately." Then emphasize the fact that it's possible to change and you're sure she can do it.

It's the "minor doses of negativity," as Vohs calls them  -- saying no, setting limits, giving constructive criticism  -- that, along with acknowledgment of your child's good qualities, help her develop a balanced, healthy sense of self. Instead of hearing nothing but how special and wonderful they are, kids become aware of their capabilities and achievements, and also of their limitations.

So, yes, they're special. But they're human too.