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David Sack, M.D. Headshot

Could Your Child Have Too Much Self-Esteem?

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"I'm good enough, I'm smart enough and doggone it, people like me." Once good for a late-night laugh courtesy of Saturday Night Live's satirical self-help show called "Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley," this catchphrase could sum up the thinking of an entire generation.

The product of a "self-esteem movement" in education, many children born between 1982 and 2002 have grown up believing they can do no wrong. Many parents, perhaps fearful of raising a drug addict, underachiever or criminal, avoided all criticism and looked for every possible reason -- even no reason at all -- to praise their child. For fear of damaging a child's self-esteem, grades became inflated and honor roll was no longer a hard-won distinction but a blanket honor bestowed on all children.

What's wrong with helping children feel good about themselves? Nothing, if high self-esteem is based on positive behaviors and genuine accomplishments. But for too many children, their self-image has been falsely inflated and the good intentions of their parents fouled by their children's personal, social and academic failure.

Good Parenting Gone Bad

We have long believed that low self-esteem is to blame for many of society's ills, from academic failure to high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse and unprotected sex. But the past two decades of research suggest that low self-esteem many not be as destructive as we once thought, and high self-esteem can be equally problematic. In fact, our modern emphasis on praise may be contributing to a generation of self-obsessed, irresponsible and unmotivated kids.

Roy Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University, found that criminals and drug abusers actually have higher self-esteem than the general population. Other researchers have found that bullies think fairly highly of themselves and may even see themselves as superior to their classmates.

According to Allan Josephson, M.D., chairman of the Family Committee of the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children are more likely to act selfishly if they are either undervalued or overvalued. Those who depend on outside praise to feel good about themselves tend to struggle later in life when teachers, employers and friends do not shower them with compliments.

Parenting in the Middle Ground

As with most parenting challenges, we are called upon to strike an all-too-elusive balance between two extremes: the tough love approach, typified by "tiger mom" Amy Chua, who advocates criticism, corporal punishment and name-calling of children who must earn their self-esteem through accomplishments, and the phony praise approach, common among some modern American parents, who cheer their children on whether they've earned it or not.

There's more to effective parenting than either extreme offers. Here are a few ways to find the middle ground:

Keep it Real. High self-esteem isn't a problem -- it's false self-esteem that knocks kids off course. Instead of applauding your child's every move, reserve your praise for noteworthy accomplishments and behaviors. Praise should go beyond accomplishments to include personality traits that make your child who they are, such as being a good friend, telling the truth and working hard.

When you do praise your child, be specific and focus on effort rather than the end result. Telling your child you're proud of all the effort they put in to getting an A on their test is more helpful than saying, "You're so smart." Knowing exactly what they did well will enhance your child's sense of self-worth.

Encourage Strategic Risk-Taking. Self-esteem forms when children challenge themselves. Create opportunities for your child to try new things, and when fears and setbacks arise, encourage them to keep trying rather than giving up or rescuing them.

Acknowledge Strengths and Weaknesses. Children need to know that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. If you pretend your child is great at everything, this may artificially inflate their ego or send the message that perfection is expected -- a set-up for low self-esteem.

Embrace Mistakes. Overprotective parents do a disservice to their children's self-esteem. From mistakes and setbacks children develop resiliency and faith that they are worthy even if they don't always "win." Share your own stories of overcoming obstacles and work through problems with your child so they can be successful next time.

Love Unconditionally. Self-esteem flourishes when children know that you will always love and accept them (though you may not always like their behavior or decisions). This message comes through clearly when parents are generous with their affection and listen attentively to their children's thoughts and feelings.

Reward Social Success. True self-esteem stems from close ties with other people. A 2012 study shows that positive social relationships during youth are better predictors of adult happiness than academic success or financial prosperity. In addition to reinforcing a child's intellect or athleticism, celebrate their ability to empathize with or help others and encourage them to participate in activities that build social connections.

Avoid Comparisons. Your child needs to be respected for their individual talents and abilities. Resist the temptation to compare your child to their friends or siblings, even if the message is positive. Instead, emphasize your child's strengths and help them work on their weak spots.

Set Realistically-High Expectations. Children do best when they know what is expected of them. Set clear rules and consequences and follow through when a rule is broken. This predictability lets kids know that discipline and constructive criticism aren't personal attacks but violations of pre-established rules.

The Byproduct of a Healthy Relationship

The so-called "self-esteem movement" is not a complete abomination. Kids should feel "good enough" and "smart enough," so long as those sentiments don't cross the line into "better than" or "smarter than," particularly if they're not based on genuine accomplishments and abilities. As parents, this is one area where we can start taking it easy -- no more nurturing self-esteem for its own sake but instead doing the things that naturally build self-esteem, like spending quality time as a family.