|| REALITY BITES New Thinking in child
psychology challeges the self-esteem
By H.J. Cummins. STAFF WRITER
IT'S CALLED THE "hot seat," and in it boys and girls face some of
sharpest insults young minds have ever devised: "You're the ugliest
thing I've seen with glasses," may pop up. Or the classic: "You're
Hardly the way to build self-esteem, you're probably thinking.
psychologist Martin Seligman - who created the hot seat as a lesson
resiliency - says in fact it's a great way. And it's one part of
challenge to the "self-esteem movement" as it has shaped child-rearing
since the 1970s.
The movement let down society, according to Seligman and a handful
of colleagues, and it let down the kids. In our rush to make youngsters
feel good about themselves, we have forgotten the value of teaching
to be good and resourceful people, they argue. In our wish to protect
youngsters from hurt, we have robbed them of one of life's best
And, they say, this "cult of self-esteem" has left a legacy that
includes both youthful violence and kids at a loss in facing life'
"Something striking has happened to the self-esteem of American
children during the era of raising our children to feel good," Seligman
writes in his new book, "The Optimistic Child" (Houghton Mifflin,
"They have never been more depressed."
Not everyone embraces these ideas. Some baby-boomer parents complain
it's just one more jab at them: First we're criticized for pushing
children too hard, now we're blamed for indulging them too much. The
experts can't have it both ways, they say. Also, some youngsters at
Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle, who agreed to give their views on this
trend, say they still see the bigger problem as parents putting down
kids too much, not overpraising them.
"That's why I see a lot of kids totally giving up," says Michelle
Margiotta, a junior at Hauppauge High School.
But these new notions are gaining currency, as a healthy swing
the pendulum back from a movement that took self-esteem to an
"Unlike a lot of movements that were just empty or stupid or
diabolical, `self-esteem' had a lot of validity to it," says Wayne
Joosse, a psychology professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids,
"How people feel about themselves does matter. But parents have gotten
the idea that you must never say no to a kid or you'll damage his
psyche," Joosse says, using the example of a young child who, during
recent church service, strolled from the front pew to the vestibule
a sip of water, then walked slowly back to his seat. And his parents
"Now, that's not the crime of the century, but it was a disruption
to a lot of people," Joosse says. "Ill-behaved kids do need to be
William Damon, author of "Greater Expectations: Overcoming the
Culture of Indulgence in America's Homes and Schools" (Free Press,
1995), is one of the self-esteem movement's more outspoken critics.
complains it got the cart before the horse: It teaches that a parent'
goal is to "give" your child self-esteem. Then, because he feels good
about himself, he'll stop doing drugs, say, and study hard.
Reality is the reverse, Damon says: You raise a child to work
and avoid temptation, and then he'll feel good about himself. Because
has earned it.
Making self-esteem its own goal got us into all kinds of trouble,
Damon complains. He cites mushrooming rates of teen homicides, gambling
and thievery. And he makes the point that some of the highest
self-esteem ratings come from members of violent gangs. "If all you
about is feeling good about yourself, that's a license to do anything."
Besides, Damon and others say you can't "give" a child self-esteem.
"Just telling kids they're `special' - that's empty and kids
through the underlying cheapness in that," said Eliot Goldman, a
psychologist at the Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park.
Unfortunately that's what the self-esteem movement has coached
well-meaning parents and teachers to do, according to Seligman. He
the example of a little boy who clearly flubs a football-team tryout,
then his father says things to him like, "That's OK, I think you did
real good job out there," and "As far as I'm concerned, you are just
good as any of the rest of them."
The boy knows he did badly, Seligman says. Or, he should. To hear
his father say otherwise undermines his faith in all of his father'
reassurances because the youngster can't help thinking, "If he says
now, did he really mean it when he said he liked my science paper?"
paradoxically, it undermines his confidence in himself: He thinks,
so hopeless that he has to lie to me?" and just as devastating, "Is
failure such a terrible thing that we can't even admit it happened
"It is confusing," says Daniel Burd, one of the young people at
tabernacle, "for kids to be told not to be performance-oriented. Because
it's a performance-oriented world."
Instead, Seligman says, parents should be teaching this lesson:
all have setbacks, and we can work to overcome them.
In fact, that's the lesson of his hot seat. Bonnie Harding, now
and living in the Blue Bell suburb of Philadelphia, was in one of
Seligman's workshops about three years ago, and took her turn on the
"It teaches you not to block out things," Bonnie said. "It's not
that nothing is your fault or you're immune to the world, but that
you're the narrator of your life."
Bonnie's mother, Karen, gave a hot seat example: One youngster
an insult on a girl, like, "You throw like a girl." She doesn't reject
the truth of it, out of hand. But rather than be overcome by the sting,
she shapes it to something manageable: "Of course I do," she responds.
"I'm a girl. And girls win gold medals at the Olympics."
Seligman calls this an "optimistic explanatory style" and he says
youngsters who learn it can dodge the spreading epidemic of youthful
depression. He describes the style as the ability to first judge
realistically what is said or done, then explain things in a way that
gives you some power over them.
Bonnie Harding credits Seligman's workshops with helping her meet
people. Before, if an introduction went badly, Bonnie says, she would
think, "Gee, they must think I'm a jerk," or "We're so different,
never get along." Now her first thoughts are: "Maybe they're having
problems at home," or "Maybe they find it hard to meet people."
"She doesn't seem to let things bother her too much," Karen Harding
says. "She has her own agenda. And she wasn't always like that."
Goldman has seen the toll lack of optimism can take. For example,
says, one of his clients, now a young woman, put no effort into school
- then pulled it together just enough to graduate.
"But she never really had a sense of struggling with some difficult
projects, then getting through it," he says. "And now she's afraid
after the more difficult jobs. She's afraid of competition."
A common mistake among parents is rushing in to fix things so
child won't feel bad, according to Jane Gillham, an associate of
Seligman's who has led parent workshops. "If the concern right off
bat is, how is the child feeling, then you're going to immediately
the child feel better by saying things like, `Oh, don't worry about
it,' or `It's not a big deal.' That's the self-esteem approach," Gillham
says. "Of course we want children to believe things will work out,
these messages are empty if they're not accompanied by realism and
something like, `Let's see what we can do about that.' "
Even Damon said the self-esteem movement was a good thing in many
ways. Dating back to late last century, it helped in passage of
child-labor laws - because it set the first scientific basis for
children's testimony to be accepted in court.
It captured the public 20 to 30 years ago, and was a good antidote
to the harsh, "spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child" treatment that preceded
it, many experts said. Its fall from favor now may have something
with society's frustration with the excuses coming out of courtrooms
talk shows, says Dennis Lowe, psychology professor at Pepperdine
University in California.
"People are tired of hearing, `Don't blame me, I'm the adult child
of a this or that'" - alcoholic, addict, whatever - Lowe says.
One fear among psychologists is that this pendulum not swing too
"You can't go back to beating people because they don't perform
well," said Chris Mruk, author of "Self-Esteem: Research, Theory and
Practice" (Springer Publishing, 1995). "We've exaggerated one side
let the other suffer. That doesn't mean we should exaggerate the other
It's Not OK, but It Can Be
Martin Seligman says parents can guide a small child's thinking
what he calls "optimistic criticism." The idea is to honestly face
whatever's wrong, but blame specific and changeable - thus, fixable
"Tammy, what's wrong with you? You're such a monster."
"Cory, I asked you to pick up your toys. Why don't you ever do what
"You are a bad boy."
"That's OK, Tanya. You've got your mom's knack when it comes to sports.
I'm horrible at sports too."
"Another C-minus? I guess you just aren't an A student."
"This room is a pig sty. You are such a slob!"
"Tammy, you are really misbehaving today. I don't like it."
"Cory, I asked you to pick up your toys. Why didn't you do what I
"You tease too much."
"That's OK, Tanya. You've got to keep your eye on the ball."
"Another C-minus? You need to spend more time on your studies."
"This room is a pig sty! Start picking up after yourself."
SOURCE: "The Optimistic Child"
How Would You React If...?
Different kids think in different ways. Look at this. It asks
bunch of questions about what you think. Each question is a little
story, and for each story there are two ways you might react. You'
supposed to choose one way or the other, the one that's closest to
way you'd really feel if that happened to you.
1. You fail a test.
A. My teacher makes hard tests.
2. You almost drown when swimming in a river.
A. I am not a very cautious person.
3. Your teacher asks you a question and you give a
A. I get nervous when I have to answer questions.
4. You get on the wrong bus and you get lost.
A. That day I wasn't paying attention to what was going on.
5. You try to sell candy, but no one will buy any.
A. Lately a lot of children are selling things, so people don't
to buy anything else from children.
6. You miss the ball and your team loses the game.
A. I didn't try hard while playing ball that day.
7. You take a train that arrives so late you miss a movie.
A. The past few days there have been problems
with the train being on time.
8. A team that you are on loses a game.
A. The team members don't play well together.
1. You get an A on a test.
A. I am smart.
2. You spend a night at a friend's house and you have
a good time.
A. My friend was in a friendly mood that night.
3. You play a game and you win money.
A. I am a lucky person.
4. You play a game and you win.
A. Sometimes I try as hard as I can at games.
5. Your parents take you to the beach and you have
a good time.
A. Everything at the beach was nice that day.
6. Your mother makes you your favorite dinner.
A. There are a few things that my mother will do
to please me.
7. You finish your homework quickly.
A. Lately I have been doing everything quickly.
8. You go to an amusement park and you have a good time.
A. I usually enjoy myself at amusement parks.
Set 1 measures if a child sees bad things as permanent or is resilient
in bad times.
Optimistic: Up to 2
Pessimistic: Above 4
Set 2 measures if a child sees good things as pervasive or believes
successes will evaporate.
Optimistic: Above 6
Pessimistic: Below 3
SOURCE: Excerpted from the 48-question test in "The
Optimistic Child," by Martin E.P. Seligman.
H.J. Cummins, REALITY BITES New Thinking in child
psychology challeges the self-esteem movement. ,
Newsday, 09-30-1995, pp B01.