Director's Corner: On Self-Esteem

No one argues that a lack of self-esteem may lead to a lack of experimentation, hence a lack of growth and overall success. But is the inverse true? An interesting article published on the BBC news website, and based in part on work by local FSU professors Roy Baumeister (Psychology) and John Reynolds (Sociology), questions whether confidence correlates with success, and argues that too much confidence may actually make people less successful.

Analyses of freshmen interviews reveal that more and more freshmen tend to be over-confident, and that the ones who are over-confident also have less academic success. The article goes on to suggest several causes for the trend, including celebrity culture and social media, but also parenting. Well-meaning parents may be inadvertently over-inflating their children's self-esteem by over-complementing them and assuring them that they can do anything they set out to do.

Dr. Reynolds talks about "ambition inflation"—students increasingly ambitious but also increasingly unrealistic in their expectations, which may explain an observed increase in anxiety and depression. Says Dr. Baumeister: "An intervention that encourages [students] to feel good about themselves, regardless of work, may remove the reason to work hard." Also: "Self-control is much more powerful and well-supported as a cause of personal success. Despite my years invested in research on self-esteem, I reluctantly advise people to forget about it."

So, from the parenting point of view, the key point is "overconfidence" following encouragement "regardless of work." Our confidence is based on our knowledge of both our strengths and weaknesses. This knowledge allows us to undertake well-calibrated challenges, from which we learn and grow and gain more confidence and maturity. As parents, we do have an important role to play in helping our children acquire that knowledge. Initially, we are the ones observing them, marveling at what they can do while also learning what may be harder for them. It is then up to us to non-judgmentally guide our children into the "work" it takes to overcome or alleviate a weaker side, be it a difficulty to concentrate, a fear of novelty, or a math challenge. In the process, the children learn about themselves, learn about improving through practice, gain motivation and build confidence.

Knowing what our children are capable of allows us to assess when their performance is actually not good enough and to ask them for more work. Asking for more than they can do is obviously detrimental, but praising for less can be as well. Let us stick to unconditional love and let go of unconditional praise.