Parents are the major influence on the self-esteem of their children, and yet sometimes get so wrapped up in wanting them to do well or to be the “best” at something, they forget the effect they are having. I think it is helpful to look at what not to do. When my daughter was five and a half, we adopted her from South America. She went to preschool for a time and then Kindergarten. I speak Spanish but she learned English very quickly.
When she was in Kindergarten, she took a standardized test and scored in the 97th percentile in language skills. When I picked her up from school and we were walking to the car, I said it was amazing that she did so well, especially as she was still learning English. We got to the car, and seconds afterwards a classmate and his mother were getting to their car. The mother was screaming at this child, whom I will call Chuck. She yelled, “You just did AVERAGE! AVERAGE! How do you think that makes me feel?” and she went on to berate him as he got into the car with his head down. I didn’t say anything to her, because this kind of emotional abuse is not illegal and I feared making things worse for the little boy. My daughter said to me, “I guess Chuck’s mom isn’t so happy with him.” She asked me why the mother was so angry, and I tried my best to answer her.
The narcissism of this mother was blatant. She said outright that it was her own feelings she was concerned about with her child’s scores, as if his very existence had nothing to do with anything outside of making her feel good about herself. I do not think it was well-intentioned, but she might not have meant to be as devastating as she was. My daughter is 26 now and this happened in Kindergarten, but I have never forgotten this little boy. I wondered if one of my colleagues sees him as a client now. This was one incident, but it is hard to imagine he was ever given the message that he was good enough the way he was.
This is a strong example, but many teachers who have been clients have told me about parents coming to them and wanting – demanding really – that their children come out at the very top on standardized testing. Teachers have told me they feel pressured to teach to the test. Parents everywhere push their children to get straight As, to be perfect. I have known children who were not gifted who were pushed into gifted classes, but were nervous wrecks.
I think to raise a child with good self-esteem the parent needs to understand that we are not meant to be perfect and are very imperfect. People have different gifts, and what they do with them is what counts. What about character? Have we forgotten about people who are kind and helpful? What message are children being given when they have to be better than everyone else? What does this teach them about themselves in relation to others? I remember explaining to my daughter how having a gift makes certain things easier and provides opportunities, just as we would sometimes laugh together about how she hated math, telling her none of us had that as our strongest point, although her father was respectable in it. Why are people proud of gifts given by nature instead of making good, decent choices? Maybe pride is not the way to go, and there is too much of it already.
Yes, we are concerned about children having choices in the future, and they have to study and ideally should do their best, but we have gone far beyond that. Do we praise or even respect effort and diligence, or helping others? Overly-pressured children do not have good self-esteem and I have seen many of them as adults, all the more confused because as they struggled with sometimes crippling anxiety related to perfectionism and shame, they would say their parents wanted the best for them and they were never abused. It is not the function of children to live out the fantasy of the parent. I can’t tell you how many adult clients felt depressed and anxious because they did not want to choose the career their parents wanted. That is not their function, but many have been raised to think it is. I knew a young woman who was an artist, born into a family of doctors; she told me she was the family idiot. This happens more often than we want to admit, and people who would never abuse and are horrified by it, are making children extremely depressed and anxious – children who later don’t even know why they are struggling.
I think parents who do not feel good enough themselves need to work on themselves instead of making their children accomplish what they themselves could not. Children are not dreams; their function is not to live out the fantasy life of the parent. I understand that there is sometimes a tension between confidence and competence, but I think we are seeing a lot of cases in which the parents thought for some reason that their child would somehow live up to the impossible standard they themselves never could. I think we need to remember to respond to our children in ways that show we value their positive traits, which may or may not be the most prestigious ones. I think children need to be loved for themselves and not for how much they make the parent feel raised up. In order to teach children self-love and love for others, we need to be able to experience it ourselves.
Aleta Edwards, Psy.D.
I am a psychotherapist in private practice, with a strong interest in shame and perfectionism. I will periodically post my thoughts about these topics and other observations relating to emotional health.