Kids and Self-Esteem

I just got back from a 2-week vacation hiking in Peru. It’s a really beautiful country, but also really poor. On the plane, I read a book called the Narcissism Epidemic, and a few thoughts clicked in my mind, connecting Peru, self-esteem and child alienation in divorce.

In the Narcissism Epidemic, the authors (researchers Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell) make a very important point: Self-esteem comes from success; success doesn’t come from self-esteem. They give one example after another of too much self-esteem (overconfidence; narcissism) leading people to fail. It’s the opposite of what you would think. It actually hurts kids to give them the message that they should always be the center of attention, that they get to make most of the decisions about their lives, and that they are automatically special. Too much of this can lead to narcissistic personality disorder.

Instead, it’s important for kids to learn that it takes effort and learning skills to succeed. Ironically, the researchers found that Asian children have the lowest self-esteem and the highest academic success. It makes me think about the rental car company that was always trying harder. When people are over-confident, they don’t try very hard. This doesn’t mean that children should feel bad about themselves, but that children shouldn’t get the message that they are superior to everyone else or that life is filled with automatic rewards. And they shouldn’t get the message that children can decide how to live or who to live with.

This brings me back to Peru. In the city and in the countryside, children seemed happy. Children as young as 5 years old were working on the family farms, herding cattle, helping plant corn and potatoes, and running the snack stands for passing hikers. They were an important part of the family effort. Their happiness and self-esteem came from their important role as a contributor to the family. Schools were very important buildings in the communities, and the children seemed to take their school books and studying very seriously. Of course, my view was very brief and from the perspective of an outsider. But a study reported in the New York Times in 2005 indicated that people from several countries in Latin America (including Peru) had happier people than you would expect from their economic situations – so perhaps my observations were accurate.

This brings me to children’s self-esteem in divorce. Unfortunately, in our more “modern” culture, we often feel that we must be overly careful about not hurting children’s self-esteem – especially children of divorce. Many divorced parents feel guilty and afraid to set limits, to have expectations, and to upset their kids. In fact, it’s important for kids to get the message that you believe they are resilient, that they can succeed with effort and learning skills, and that emotions are just emotions – not something to tiptoe around.

Divorce, in and of itself, does not harm children. It’s the way children are taught to interpret the divorce. High-conflict divorce hurts kids because it includes a lot of anger, blame, sometimes abuse and sometimes false allegations. If a parent doesn’t take his or her anger out on the child or the other parent, then children don’t become alienated. If a parent supports the other parent as much as realistically possible, then children don’t become alienated.

I met a judge once after I gave a seminar to judges, who said that he was raised primarily by a single mother after a divorce. He said he thought he actually benifitted because he was expected to be more responsible around the home, to manage his emotions in an appropriate manner and to be more respectful than other children. I believe it is possible for children of divorce to actually learn more skills for being more successful in life than many non-divorced children learn today in our narcissistic culture, where they can be focused on themselves.

What do you think? Does divorce itself damage childrens self-esteem, or is it the way children are treated by parents, teachers, family and friends after a divorce? And if children are allowed and encouraged to make most of the decisions about their own lives, doesn’t this encourage alienation by allowing a child to “choose” not to see one of his or her parents? How do you teach your child to help others and contribute to your family, even after a divorce? Please read my new book, Don't Alienate The Kids! and please leave a comment.