The Self-Esteem Obesity Epidemic

My kids grew up in the era of the self-esteem movement: that era when, no matter what my kids did, good or bad, they were patted on the back or given an award simply for trying…or being…or showing up…It was/is an era without winners or losers, because losing was somehow seen as detrimental to healthy growth.   So instead, everybody always won.  Nobody was better than the other.  Building up the self-esteem of our kids was priority number 1.  Instilling a “I believe in myself, I like myself, I feel good about my self” foundation in their souls was/is the driving force of education and extra-curricular activities.  It was an era of Care Bears and Barney and Friends.  It was/is the era of parents arguing with teachers (and then their superiors) about the B or C little Dylan or Rainee received instead of the A that he or she deserves!  

The self-esteem movement grew out of the work of therapists like Nathaniel Branden, who in the late 1960s wrote that internal negativity could lead to lack of achievement. Change what people think of themselves, he contended, and you can change their destiny. 

And as a parent, I was all for it.  Still am.  As a pastor, I was all for it.  Still am.  Something deep inside all of us tells us that when we believe in our selves, when we esteem ourselves, that we can do anything.

But, in hindsight, it seems that, as with anything good in life, we may have gone too far.  Increasingly culture watchers are seeing signs of what I’m labeling, Self-Esteem Obesity.

Some of the symptoms:

  • A sense of entitlement
  • A lack of risk taking (why would I try anything that would open up the possibility of failure)
  • A sense of settling (if everyone thinks I’m so great even with a so-so effort, why try)
  • An unrealistic appraisal of one’s actual gifts and talents (see American Idol contestants!)
  • Paralysis in the face of failure
  • The inability to handle feedback, constructive criticism, or “working their way up” in the job

Some who research the psychology of teens have concluded that this trend, born of good intentions in the Age of Aquarius, has had toxic effects.

By their estimation, today’s young people have been praised so much that some flail at their first taste of criticism or failure. Others develop a keen sense of privilege, believing they’ll coast into a golden future regardless of their actual talents, accomplishments or willingness to work.

“There has been a pretty big shift in expectations. Adjusting to reality is going to be different,” said Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor whose research has found soaring teen self-esteem.

Twenge’s conclusion is not universally accepted — other researchers have found no significant changes in self-esteem from previous generations — but it rings true in many schools and homes. And it has some adults asking themselves hard questions.

“It’s this entitlement that is driving many of us crazy. It’s like, where did we go wrong?” said Rita Berger, a West Chicago mother of a teenage son and daughter. “We’re kind of the root problem. In our attempt to give (this generation) everything, they have not learned to work or appreciate things.” 

Could it be that our kids have become self-esteem obese?  Has our obsession with raising kids with positive self-esteem created an epidemic of kids/young adults with an unrealistic perspective on life…and themselves?

I’d like to suggest that our kids need a broader diet and fitness plan—one that will enhance their self-esteem, but in a context of health rather than obesity.

The diet consists of these four elements:

  • The Blessing: When God blessed Jesus, it armed him for his mission and ministry.  There were 3 components to the blessing:  The Affirmation of Unconditional Love (You are my beloved son); The Affirmation of Pride (I am fully pleased with you) And the Affirmation of the call or character or strengths of the child (This is what you are good at).  When you know mom and dad have your back, when you have their blessing, and the blessing of your Creator, you are well on your way to a strong, fulfilling life.
  • Self-Esteem: Self-esteem is the ability to say: I am created in the Image of God.  No matter what, he values me.  Therefore, I have great worth and value just as I am.
  • Self-Respect: Self-respect grows out of a realistic appraisal of and acceptance of our selves.  Self-respect says:  These are my strengths.  These are my weaknesses.  I know what I’m good at and where I’m not so good.  And I will not only live with that and accept it, I will build on my strengths and learn from my failures…seeing both as a valuable part of life.
  • Grace: A grace-based life recognizes the deep need for God’s grace and forgiveness—the grace that accepts me just as I am and then molds me into who I am created to be, and the forgiveness to start over when I’ve failed myself or others.

The exercise program consists of life-skills: equipping our children with the skills they need to navigate the ups and downs of life.  Some of those skills include:

  • Developing a mind that thinks about what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, excellent, admirable, and praiseworthy
  • Treating all people with dignity and respect
  • Handling failure with grace
  • Handling success with grace
  • Being a compassionate person
  • Being a generous person

A well rounded self-worth diet and fitness plan can empower our kids to be who God created them to be in a world that will affirm, challenge, plant seeds of doubt, confuse, and inspire that self-worth.

 

About Tim Wright

I've been a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America since 1984, currently serving as the founding pastor of Community of Grace in Peoria, AZ. My wife, Jan and I, were married in 1979. We raised two kids and currently have 3 grandkids. I love to ride my bike, travel, read British Mysteries, and Disneyland. I have written 6 books, including my newest--Searching for Tom Sawyer: How Parents and Congregations Can Stop the Exodus of Boys From Church. My website: www.TimWrightMinistries.org


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