For several decades now, parents have been bombarded with messages about how important it is to build their child's self-esteem. And it certainly is true that children need a positive self-image in order to function properly. It's hard to be much of a success at anything when you consider yourself to be a worthless, good-for-nothing miserable failure that can't do anything right. And so we've been hard at work pumping up the self-esteem of our kids. We've incessantly told them how wonderful and awesome they are. We've ensured every kid gets a participation ribbon just for trying, or even eliminated the prizes for first, second or third place altogether, so as not to confront our kids with the awful truth that others might be better at something. We've gone so far as to stop keeping score in youth sports competitions, lest children be exposed to feeling like a loser after having lost a game. Psychologist Wendy Mogel describes a situation where “a principal at an elementary school told me that a parent asked a teacher not to use red pens for corrections, because the parent felt it was upsetting to kids when they see so much red on the page. This is the kind of self-absorption we're seeing, in the name of our children's self-esteem.” (Gottlieb, 2011, p. 74) We've done all these things so that our children can grow up happy and healthy and successful in life.
And yet, for all our efforts, kids seem to be growing more vulnerable and more dependant, not less so. "Many people who grew up in the '50s say, ‘Nothing I did was ever good enough for my parents,’” says psychologist Roy Baumeister, who has studied self-esteem. “Now we're seeing the pendulum swing, and you hear from coaches and teachers who have been at it a while that kids have become more fragile. They don't take criticism well." (Elias, 2008)
Some studies suggest that reported rates of self-esteem among children have indeed been rising, but so have rates of anxiety and depression, almost in perfect lockstep with the self-esteem movement. Children may feel better about themselves in the abstract, but massive problems in self-competency are emerging, and rates of narcissism have also shot through the roof.