Pride before the fall

The most important factor to healthy self-esteem is having it grounded in reality.

self esteem 521 (photo credit: Val B. Mina/The Sacramento Bee/MCT)
self esteem 521
(photo credit: Val B. Mina/The Sacramento Bee/MCT)
If you Google parenting and self-esteem, you will find there are close to two million results. It has become accepted that the primary job of parenting is to build your child’s self-esteem. A typical argument is put forward by, which came up No. 1 on a Google search. It reads: “Children learn their first lessons about self-esteem from their parents. If children feel good about themselves, these good feelings will be reflected in how they relate to friends, teachers, siblings, parents and others. Self-esteem is something that affects individuals throughout life; therefore, it is very important for parents to help their children develop healthy levels of self-esteem...”
The belief in the benefits of high self-esteem reached its height in 1986 when California created a task force to promote self-esteem. The purpose of the task force was to increase the number of socially responsible people in society.
They believed that by raising people’s self-esteem they would be able to limit social problems such as crime, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency.
The premise was that having high regard for the self would encourage children and adults to success and good deeds.
Apparently that is not an accurate assumption, as it appears that having high self-esteem may be an important factor contributing to aggression and violence. Roy Baumeister, a Florida State University psychology professor, has revealed in a study of violent criminals that the one characteristic nearly all of them share is high self-esteem.
With an unjustified inflated level of self-esteem, these criminals are particularly vulnerable to criticism and perceived threats to their sense of self. A wrong look or inadvertent comment could be interpreted as a threat to their inflated sense of self. Since they have impulsive personality traits, such people are likely to respond to these perceived threats with aggression and violence.
The most important factor to healthy self-esteem is having it grounded in reality. Psychologist Jennifer Tracy has developed a model for describing beneficial and destructive selfesteem, by comparing them with the concept of pride. Pride can be divided into both beneficial and destructive attributes.
Tracy named them the “authentic pride” for the beneficial attribute and “hubristic pride” for the destructive attribute.
She found that authentic pride resulted from someone believing he is proud of his accomplishment and effort. Such an individual would say, “I am proud of what I did,” and “I won because I practiced a long time.” Tracy labeled this positive pride as authentic because it is based on actual accomplishments and is likely to be accompanied by genuine feelings of self-worth that would be validated by others.
Conversely, a person with hubristic pride believes his success is due to a sense of superiority, unrelated to a particular action or effort. The emphasis for this person is not his actions but his overall sense of superiority. Such a person would say, “I won because I am the best.”
A feeling that I am the best often starts with a parent who tries to increase his child’s self-esteem by comparing him favorably to others in an unrealistic manner. There is an emphasis on how much better, smarter or more successful the child is than others. Unfortunately some parents do this comparison even between siblings.
This often leads to such a child growing up with a feeling of superiority which he applies to his whole self. It is most often based on nothing more than his inflated sense of self. This often leads to type of person, often described as a narcissist, who has the need to compare himself to others, compete with others and/or use others to confirm his inflated sense of self.
As an adult this person needs constant affirmation of his inflated sense of self.
He often is seen as arrogant, haughty or a knowit- all who is overly sensitive to criticism.
In everyday conversation such a person is trying to be one up on you, constantly prove he knows more, show he is connected to important people or prove that only he knows the right way to get something done.
Aside from being overly sensitive to criticism, such a person is also unlikely to be thoughtful or empathic to others. He thinks of interactions as win-or-lose propositions and can often be overly critical of others to keep feeling his sense of superiority. Therefore he is unlikely to forgive or apologize. He is not the kind of person to be helpful and promote goodness.
This leads to a challenge when thinking of emphasizing the development of self-esteem in children. While the portrait of hubristic pride may be extreme, too many children grow up with an inflated sense of themselves.
These qualities associated with inflated self-esteem do not contribute to good character.
The psychologist John Rosemond, a well-known childrearing expert, emphasizes that focusing too much on your child’s self-esteem is counterproductive to producing good character. It is important that parents make their child feel special, but not to the point where the child considers himself superior or better than most others. He claims that to grow up to be a responsible person with good character, a parent should not put his child on an “18-year entitlement program,” where his wishes are paramount and his responsibilities are limited. Rather, as parents your focus needs to be as much on humility and responsibility as on positive self-esteem, love and accomplishment.
As a way of building toward that goal of good character, Rosemond developed a parents’ bill of rights for their children.
It is a brief blueprint of how to build character: Use the word “no” three times a day; require children to share in household chores; teach children to be grateful for what they receive; make sure they receive all of what they need but only a little of what they want; expect that they learn obedience to legitimate authority; and give them love for who they are.
In our quest as parents to what is best for our children, we should remember to focus on teaching good character as much as developing authentic self-esteem. That requires one to balance saying no and teaching responsibility with saying yes and giving realistic authentic praise.
The writer is a clinical psychologist and certified life coach. He has offices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.