COLUMN BOOSTING SELF-ESTEEM SWELLS THE HEAD, NOT THE HEART

ELLIE S. GROSSMAN

Every generation has an alias. The typical grandparents of the “Baby Boomers” are called the post-Civil War “Missionary Generation.” The parents of the “Baby Boomers” are labeled the “Lost Generation” and “G.I. Generation,” who fought in World War II and survived the Depression. They created the next population explosion of ambitious movers and shakers and anti-war protestors, who, in turn, introduced “Generation Jones.”

Stick with me here. The demographics get even more confusing. Next comes the spiritual awakening in American history known as “Consciousness Revolution,” followed by the ambiguous “Generation Xers” and the pop culture influences of the “MTV Generation”, “Boomerang Generation”, and “Generation Y.”

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Furthermore, market researchers characterize children born between 1982 and 2000 as “Millennials”, and they are a sub-category of the “New Silent Generation,” also called “Generation Z.” In summary, someone please explain to me who I am and who my children are supposed to be.

What concerns me most is that the population who was born since the 1980s during the so-called “self-esteem movement” has earned yet another distinction, “Generation Me.” According to psychiatrists who research this sort of thing, college students are more self-centered than any generation in history as a result of our misguided notion that self-esteem makes a child happier, brighter, and more successful.

Based on a study called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), which evaluates the changing attitudes of college students from 1982 to 2006, high self-esteem may be to blame for the new era of egomaniacs which are about to enter the workforce and shape our future. Of course, there are always exceptions to such sweeping generalizations as evident by the college students who sacrifice their own needs and take care of each other in the aftermath of the recent Virginia Tech massacre.

Still, many children who are now coming of age favor personal gain over contributing to the greater good. True, volunteerism is on the rise, but that’s most likely because some schools recommend community service on a resume, much like a mitzvah project is required for Hebrew School students. Perhaps because of society’s high expectations, most graduates would rather jumpstart their careers than take time off to teach children in Equador how to read.

This alarming trend of narcissism flourishes on school playgrounds, as well as college campuses. For more than two decades, parents, educators, and therapists have been programmed to believe that high self-esteem and praise are good for children, and that the more special they feel about themselves the better. Truth is, high self-esteem has little to do with improved academic or job performance, nor does feeling good about yourself prevent underage smoking, drinking, crime, and inappropriate sexual activity. Young people may seem more confident on the outside, but on the inside they feel miserable because their self worth is based on external reinforcement.

The National Association for Self-Esteem defines self-esteem simply as the experience of being capable of meeting life’s challenges and feeling worthy of happiness. While self-esteem is important to healthy development, boosting a child’s ego with phony praise does more harm than good.

Exaggerated acclamation starts early and innocently enough, such as when a preschooler scribbles a purple line on a piece of paper, and the proud parent is quick to hang it on the refrigerator door. Think about it — how many times in a single day do we tell our kids, “Way to go!” and “Good job!” and “Awesome!”, even when that means they put their dishes in the sink, blew their nose, or got the mail for us. Big deal.

It seems that all a kid has to do these days to earn a pat on the back is wake up for school. “Thanks for rolling out of bed so easily this morning, honey. You’re a real trooper!” Or, how about, “At least you tried to clean up your room, so here’s an allowance for effort.”

Even when the soccer team comes in in sixth place, they still get a shiny trophy. By the time a typical teenager gets her driver’s license, she has more colorful ribbons, fancy certificates, and bogus awards shoved in her desk drawer than a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Olympic athlete combined.

Parents want to protect their children from disappointment, but this type of flattery gives children a false sense of security. At the first hint of criticism, they crumble. When they face rejection or failure, they become aggressive or even violent. Maintaining relationships is a struggle.

Well-deserved recognition for worthy accomplishments is one thing, but empty praise for ordinary tasks is meaningless. When a first-grader turns in her spelling words, for example, she gets to choose between a tootsie roll and taffy in the big glass jar. When a fifth-grader fills out a reading slip, she wins a gift certificate to Pizza Hut. When a middle-schooler raises her grade point average, she earns ice cream at a school assembly. Are we raising a smarter generation, or a fatter one?

Judaism has a better approach to boost self-esteem. In addition to authoritative parenting, children benefit most when they are helping others through mitzvot, or sacred good deeds. In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech mass shooting, many students and faculty seek counseling, while others put their intense emotions into action on behalf of the victims who lost their lives. They rally together to make the campus safer and they comfort each other through participation in memorials, contributions to scholarships, and do anything possible to help the grieving families and keep the memories of their loved ones alive.

“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Her stories are inspired by the real life of her family, including her two children, toy poodle named Luci, and her husband, but not necessarily in that order. Feel free to send any comments, prayers or recipes to: [email protected] or visit her new website at www.mishegasofmotherhood.com.