Why You Shouldn’t Build Up Self-Esteem in Children

Last month, Heather Ann spoke of the importance of building self-esteem in children.  In Part 2 of our 2-part series, Kimberlee will discuss why that shouldn’t be our focus and how it could be potentially damaging to do so.  Both writers make great points – you decide which of the two very thought-provoking points on this “hot” discussion apply to your family.

The parenting “experts” in the world for the last 40-50 years or so have been warning parents and teachers that we need to build up, focus on and protect our children’s self-esteem at all costs, to make it as high as possible.  Some go to the extreme of telling us we should NEVER tell our children they are doing something wrong, criticize or be negative toward them in any manner.  They warn that children who have low self-esteem are more likely to be aggressive or commit acts of violence.  I must respectfully disagree.  We should not make it our goal to have children with high self-esteem.  Why not?  Keep reading.


Let me put forth a definition of self-esteem.  Esteem can be defined as to honor highly or worship.  Therefore, self-esteem can be defined as worshipping or honoring oneself.  No one likes to be around people who speak and act as if they worship themselves, so why do we believe that we need to foster a high self-esteem in our children?  In fact, don’t (or shouldn’t) we value self-respect and the resulting respect for others over self-esteem?  John Rosemond interviewed teachers and posed this question.  “If you would rather teach a class of 25 kids whose IQs are 150 or above, but who are lacking in good manners, than 25 kids whose IQs are average but who are well-mannered and therefore well-behaved, please remain standing.”  Every teacher sits down.  (“Parenting by the Book”, p. 79) Respect and good manners are desired even above intelligence by those who have to interact with our children.  Shouldn’t we also value it?

The research of Roy Baumeister, et al., has concluded that high self-esteem, not low self-esteem, is often linked with violence and aggression.  It seems that people with high self-esteem will go to great lengths to protect their view of themselves.  These “great lengths” may include murder, aggression and various forms of violence.  He also found that the people who had the highest levels of self-esteem were hard-core criminals.  What?  Let me say that again.  People convicted of murder and/or violence towards others tested the highest in self-esteem.  Ack!  Really?  Hmm.  Keep reading.

Even if violence and aggression are not “the problem”, there are other things.  It seems that people who have high self-esteem have little self-control, do not handle disappointment or defeat well, tend to blame others for their problems, and blatantly (sometimes violently) disregard the rights of others.  They tend to foster a sense of:

Entitlement:  If I want it, I deserve to have it.
Pragmatism:  Because I am entitled to what I want, the ends justify the means.
Narcissism:  Rules do not apply to me.  Therefore, no one shall deny me what I want or get in my way.

You probably know people like this.  Have you ever heard your Mama say, “They are getting too big for their britches.”?  Or, “You come down off that high horse.”  Do you know someone who could be described as pompous, conceited, arrogant, egotistical, prideful, “full of themselves” or a braggart?  Have you met someone who seems to have a “superiority complex”?  Do you know people who think of themselves as “God’s gift to the world”?  Do they have a very high (perhaps wrongly so) opinion of themselves?  Do they act, speak and convey an attitude that says, “I am better than you.”?  These are a few examples of people who have high self-esteem.  Some examples from history are Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Osama bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein.  Each of these men determined that they were superior to some other group of people.  Then they went out of their way to eliminate those people they considered inferior.

People like those just described are not people with whom I like to spend a lot of time.  I do not even want to be remotely associated with them, in most cases.  And, I sure do not want my kids growing up to be like them.  It is not just the Hitlers and the Stalins of history.  It is the playground bully who arrogantly believes he is better than my child and therefore has the right to take his lunch money or control which part of the playground he can play on.  It is the peer who thinks he is the best and only person to take on some role or another, in the process demeaning and alienating all others.  It is the student who refuses to follow the rules because they don’t apply to him.  These are the children who we are told need to have an increase in self-esteem, regardless of the research that shows that increasing their self-esteem may only make the problem worse. 


It is my contention that instead of increasing our children’s self-esteem, we need to be fostering an attitude of selflessness in our children.  We need to be combating the mentality that “it is all about me.”  I want my children to be more like the people who are known to be selfless.  I want them to be known as helpful, kind, respectful people.  I want them to grow up to be like the people from history who were never described as being selfish, arrogant, prideful or full of themselves.  Three examples are Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Jesus Christ.  

Realistic Sense of Self

I believe that instead of working to help our children have high self-esteem, we need to help our children have a realistic sense of themselves, knowing their gifts, skills, talents and abilities, BUT also being aware of their limitations and faults.  They need to learn to work WITH their strengths and work ON their weaknesses, to help strengthen them.  We should not be inflating our children’s egos with empty praise and flattery.  Instead, we should be guiding them to become the kinds of people who will care for others first, respect their leaders and honor one another.


Similar to selflessness and a realistic sense of self is self-respect.  It is a common misconception that self-esteem and self-respect are synonymous, when in fact they could not be more different.  Self-esteem is dependent on external factors for growth.  It comes from praise, flattery and is often found in experiences in which the child is incapable of failing (planned success).  Self-respect is internal.  As a person treats others with respect, regardless of their “station” in life, self-respect increases along with a sense that they are doing something positive.  Self-esteem is self-focused.  It is “all about me” and what others should be doing for me. Self-respect is primarily focused on doing for, caring for and meeting the needs of others.  To quote John Rosemond, “the fundamental difference between self-respect and self-esteem is the difference between wanting to do for others (looking for opportunities to be of service), and wanting/expecting others to do for you (wanting to be served).”  (“Parenting by the Book”, p. 75)


Avoiding high self-esteem does not mean we should never praise our children, point out their accomplishments or encourage them with words, actions and rewards.  It means we should accurately and honestly give our children feedback and help them self-evaluate.  Ask questions.  “How do you think you did?”  “Do you think that [insert behavior, task, activity, etc.] was a good idea?  Why or why not?”  “What could you have done better?”  “What did you do well?”  Then, add your input, both the positive and the negative.  Tell them if you think they did well, if you are proud of something they accomplished or if they showed themselves to be a hard worker who did not give up when things got hard.  Give them a hug, a high five, a pat on the back or a smile and a wink.  But, don’t fill them with empty words, awards or actions just meant to make them feel better about themselves.  Be honest.  Tell them how they could improve.  In the real world, every action, project and competition will not result in a winner every time.  Not everyone can be a winner, a leader or go home with a trophy.  Life is full of disappointments.  We should be about teaching our kids how to deal with disappointments and move past them.

Teaching our kids selflessness and self-respect is not an easy task.  It is going to require much time spent with our children.  Lots of time, lots of interaction and lots of communication- all of which will foster a relationship with our kids so that they know they are valued and loved just as they are right now. We need to invest time in our kids, sharing with them as we go through the good times and the bad times.  Don’t gloss over the hard stuff or paint it with roses.  Don’t create false situations in which they can not fail just to make them feel better about themselves.  Teach them how to make lemonade out of life’s lemons, but encourage them to add a little sugar if it is too sour or more lemon juice if it is too sweet!  It is all about finding a balance.  Teach them to respect (not glorify) themselves and they, in turn, will respect others and be the kind of person who will make you proud to be their parent!    

Note for further reading:  

My thinking on this all changed when I read Parenting by the Book by John Rosemond.  In this book, he calls us to return to focusing on teaching our children self-respect, respect for others, responsibility and resourcefulness.  He encourages parents to teach their kids to obey, listen, be honest, kind, thoughtful and charitable.  Much of what I have written here is summarized from his book.

In his book, John Rosemond references the work of Roy Baumeister.  Because I am the nerd that I am, I wanted to read the research for myself.  I did a search for his name and came to this page, which included links to many of his publications.  Some of them are available in full text.  Others I had to seek out at the library and other venues.  If this idea has you thinking and you enjoy reading heavy psychological and sociological research, I would encourage you to get a copy of his journal publications.




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    I am all about this and do something like it myself. I’m not sure I’d phrase it as not building up self-esteem, I’d maybe call it not building up BLIND, meritless self-esteem, and helping them build up their own deserved self-esteem. I love telling my kids they’ve done something right WHEN THEY HAVE. And what it was. I won’t say “good girl for helping”, I go with results-oriented: “when you helped me, it made me really happy and proud, isn’t that great?” or “when you helped your sister, she learned something new, isn’t that fun?” and “doesn’t the room look great now that it’s clean?” I want them to know the reward of seeing the results of what they do, not just getting compliments like a puppy dog.

    And it’s the same on NOT doing well, though I tend to focus on “how you’re going to do better next try”, because there’s nothing wrong with a little positivity. I’ll ask them for ideas before I give my own.

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    I always thought the “self-esteem” push was a bit off the mark. Then I too read John Rosemond’s book and finally understood WHY I had always cringed inside when people talked about “building their self-esteem” and never saying ANYTHING remotely negative for fear of “damaging” a child’s self-esteem. I agree that cruel words and actions along with constant/overly negative comments ARE damaging to children but I always hated the “everybody is a winner” and false praise that seems to accompany the self-esteem “movement” – LOVE this post! :) Thank you for writing about it – it’s a topic I’ve wanted to write about for some time but have not found the words yet! :)

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    Corinne Kurzmann says:

    I am now going to read this book..Thanks for the blog post..I learned quite a bit!

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    As a once college debater, I can appreciate a well formed argument, but I do not see a clear “flip side” to Heather Ann’s blog on “The Importance of Building Self-Esteem in Children.” Building a healthy self-esteem in a child does not mean building a conceited child. What would the “flip side” of Heather’s argument be? Ignore the opportunity to cultivate a child’s self-esteem? Or worse, criticize your child to insure low self-esteem? Heather’s article gives adults strategies for helping children build a HEALTHY self-esteem, not a “high self-esteem” (if this is not synonymous). I believe all parents want their children to have authentic experiences that promote confidence and feelings of self-worth.

    Let me offer yet another widely accepted definition of self-esteem: Self-esteem is the collection of beliefs or feelings we have about ourselves, our “self-perceptions.” How we define ourselves influences our motivations, attitudes, and behaviors and affects our emotional adjustment. I believe Mother Theresa, Gandhi and Christ all had a pretty healthy sense of self, purpose and self-esteem.

    I agree with Kimberlee that we ALSO (not instead) need to foster an attitude of selflessness and self-respect (which I believe is related to liking yourself for who you are). And with her suggestion of teaching our kids how to be confident with negative feedback, which is a good way to boost self-esteem.

    Kimberlee lost me in her examples of evil people like, Hitler, who she claims had high self-esteem and would “not like to hang out with.” Those three men she mentioned might have felt superior, but studies show, Hitler, for example had a very low self image and was an angry psychopath. “There is little disagreement among professional, or even among amateur, psychologists that Hitler’s personality is an example of the counteractive type, a type that is marked by intense and stubborn efforts (i) to overcome early disabilities, weaknesses and humiliations (wounds to self-esteem), and sometimes also by efforts (ii) to revenge injuries and insults to pride.” Just like the Columbine killers and the numerous suicide bombers, it is hard to prevent murder when killers do not care if they live or die.

    With over two million teenagers suffering from depression and hopelessness, at risk for suicide, I choose to help in the process of my children building a healthy self-esteem, and I would settle on the “high” over the “low” if that means they will tend to focus more on their good qualities and less on their negative qualities. As a teacher I can tell you that many children with a healthy (positive=high) self-esteem are also humble, respectful and well-mannered. I caution against stereotyping and generalizing on IQ and behavior.

    Patterns of self-esteem start very early in life. The feeling of success following persistence starts early too, beginning with rolling and crawling. As children continue to try, fail, try again, fail again, and then finally succeed, they develop ideas about their own capabilities. At the same time, they’re creating a self-concept based on interactions with other people. This is why parental involvement is key to helping kids form accurate, healthy self-perceptions / self-esteems.

    I believe in keeping it real (authentic), but keeping it positive at the same time! Life can be cruel enough out there in the real world and I want to create a safe, loving home environment, where my children will feel encouraged to take on new challenges, building confidence along the way. And of course I am also teaching my children manners and how to be respectful too! :)

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