This is an area that is important regardless of a child’s developmental history, socioeconomic status, gender, or race. As parents, we watch as our children are generally so carefree and assured, with the slightest compliments effectively reinforcing their every move. Then we have to let them go at some point; to go away from the safety and comfort of our homes, and enter into the land of school. We now don’t have any control over who they will meet or how they will be treated. We must simply wait and pick up the pieces as we try and put on our best ‘poker face’ listening with angst, guilt, and anger (among other emotions) to our child recount being teased earlier that day. I used to believe, perhaps hope, that self-esteem was not at risk until the junior high/middle school years, or what I like to call: “the years in which all kids should either hibernate or be allowed to stay home until maturity sets in.”
Unfortunately now I know better. Self-esteem is at risk the moment a child enters preschool or daycare. It just looks different. Kids as young as preschool age can be heard telling each other, ‘I don’t want to be your friend,” or “I don’t like you.” I recently listened to one of my colleagues recount how when her son was younger he came home one day and told her, “Johnny told me that he didn’t want to be my friend!” She recalled how she bit her lip and was ready to give him a big hug as he was surely on the verge of tears. She put her ‘poker face’ on and asked her son, “What did you say?” Her son responded in a matter-of-face tone, “Who cares!?”
There has to be something to that response. Some kids are simply born with a suit of armor that can repel these meaningless comments while others are devastated at the very thought of anyone not liking them. Self-esteem begins to be chipped away each day in school whether a child is having a difficult time with math, or reading, or friendships, or basically anything that the child begins to internalize as making them ‘defective’ or ‘flawed’ in any way. This is the same reason why the notion of a child being deemed ‘lazy’ by their teacher is ridiculous. Kids are absolutely devastated when they cannot keep up in class, don’t answer a question correctly, take longer than their peers to complete an assignment or test…the list goes on and on… You tell me how that is lazy.
So what is self-esteem and how can we help our kids achieve and maintain it? My favorite definition comes from a pioneer in the field of psychology, William James. He defined self-esteem with the following equation: Self-Esteem = Success/Pretensions (or Success divided by Pretensions).
Pretensions are viewed as goals, purposes, or aims, whereas Successes constitute the perception of the attainment of those goals. Thus, we essentially decide in our own minds when we have achieved success based on our own expectations for that success. When self-esteem begins to suffer is when an individual comes up short in his or her perception of reaching a particular goal, especially when the individual compares his or her achievement of a goal against the achievement of others. So, for the child who either tells himself (or hears it from his parents) that he must get straight A’s and then gets a ‘B’ in gym class only to be outdone by one of his academic rivals, self-esteem has just taken a ‘hit.’ Whereas the child who really struggles in gym class and has lower expectations but eventually achieves a ‘B’ in the class may have a rise in self-esteem.
The bottom line, which is as important for adults as it is for kids, is that we have to have multiple ‘columns’ or ‘pillars’ of support to our self-esteem. If we rest all of our esteem on how well we do in school and then do lousy on a test, then we are in trouble. This is why I strongly encourage kids to pursue a variety of interests beginning in middle school even if they only end up liking a few things. I don’t expect that they will like everything they try, but having at least a few new interests to add to the old can insulate them down the road if just one of their previous interests does not go well.
Imagine that I, a pediatric psychologist, enter a contest and win the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game. I practice a little so that I don’t embarrass myself on the big day and then the day arrives. I step up on the mound, try a bit of a wind up, and throw a wild pitch that sends the catcher scrambling and draws jeers from the fans. It’s all in good fun and I laugh it off. Why don’t I hang my head and beat myself up about this? Why hasn’t my self-esteem suffered? Well, for starters I am not a trained professional pitcher so why should I be expected to throw an accurate pitch from that distance? But what if I were and I performed the same way? Then my self-esteem might be in jeopardy because my pretensions are different.
The young boy I discussed earlier comes to mind. As a psychologist, my reaction to my wild pitch can safely be “who cares?” There are plenty of other things I do well and my pretensions for throwing the ball well were low. As a result, not achieving success was okay. This is exactly why we need to have multiple pillars of support. If my entire self-concept is tied up in how knowledgeable and helpful I am as a psychologist, and a child comes to see me that I can’t seem to get through to, then I might beat myself up and question my competence. However, if I go home to my family that night and watch as my daughter runs to greet me and play with me, I am reminded that there is more to me and my self-concept than what I do at work. Adults as much as kids run into this problem and it gets them into big trouble. The workaholic father, for example, who is so angry with his family every night because he can never truly be successful at work due to his extremely high pretensions. His goals are too lofty and as a result he cannot find happiness in other areas…work is his only pillar of esteem and he has little energy left for much else. Kids need to be reminded multiple times each day of their lives to find successes in what they do and increase the chances of that by doing a variety of different things. A bad day at school is only devastating when the pretensions of how school should go are set too high.
Often what I worry about with the kids I treat is that they have suffered too many losses of esteem and don’t like the feeling anymore. As a result, they fall into the cycle of avoidance. Indeed, in their minds they think: With no attempt there can be no failure; with no failure no humiliation.
So our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do. It is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities; a fraction of which our pretensions are the denominator and the numerator is our success: thus…
Self-Esteem = Success/Pretensions. Self-esteem is ultimately increased by increasing our successes in life while also decreasing our pretensions. I would strongly encourage all of us to keep our pretensions realistic and not depend on too much success in any one particular area of our lives. The more we spread it out, the safer we are or the more intact our self-esteem remains. Keep your options varied and open and don’t lose sight of what you are good at, even when you have a bad day and one of your columns of support happens to collapse on that particular day.
Dr. Mark Bowers is a Licensed Pediatric Psychologist at the Ann Arbor Center for Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
© 2009 Mark Bowers, Ph.D.