What I wish every parent (and podcast) understood about self-esteem

One of my favorite podcasts — The Happiness Lab — kicked off its 2021 season earlier this month with an episode called Dump Your Inner Drill Sergeant. Did you catch it?

Host Laurie Santos and guest Kristen Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, discussed the importance of self-compassion — forgiving ourselves for our mistakes, remembering that failure is a necessary part of the human experience, and talking to ourselves kindly rather than critically. All good, right?

Yes, except for one thing: In making her point, Neff made the error of pitting self-compassion against self-esteem, as though the former is preferred over the latter.

Here's what she said. The emphasis is mine.

"It’s not a problem to have high self-esteem. The problem is how do you get it. There's are a lot of unhealthy ways to get high self-esteem. For instance, you've got to feel special and better than average. You've got to feel better than other people, which leads to constant social comparison. It leads to things like bullying others. We know that's why little kids start to bully others, is because they're trying to boost their self-esteem.

But the biggest problem with self-esteem is that it’s contingent. It's contingent on success. So we have self-esteem when other people like us, or when we feel that we’re attractive or when we succeed. Whether it's school or business or athletics or whatever is important to you — then we have high self-esteem. But what happens when we fail? When we fail, the self-esteem deserts us, [and] that's a problem because, as human beings, we're constantly going to fail."

This is the part where I started to feel stabby.

First, because the comments displayed a profound misunderstanding about what self-esteem is and how we come to have it. And second, because I'm an extremely impatient person and want everyone on the planet to just know this already!

But it's okay. I know not everyone has read ParentShift. (*grumble grumble*), and I know society is flooded with misinformation on the subject. So this is me, lowering my heart-rate enough to tell you the six things I wish every human understood about self-esteem.

1. Self-esteem is not a feeling that comes and goes. It's an overall sense of self-worth.

Yes, I love to win board games. And I feel proud when I receive writing awards. And good-hair days are the best! But all these temporary "highs" speak to my mood and confidence levels in those moments — not my self-esteem.

Self-esteem is both deeper and more constant. When you have high self-esteem, you feel fundamentally deserving of love, respect and belonging. You are genuinely satisfied in your our own skin. And you have no reason to constantly compare yourself to others, or be "better than others," because you know, deep down, that everyone wins sometimes, everyone fails sometimes, and — as my teenager daughter and her friends tell each other frequently — YOU ARE WORTHY just the same.

2. Everyone's self-esteem has been eroded to some degree.

ParentShift co-author Ty Hatfield once likened self-esteem to a stone under dripping water. The dripping water represents all the things in the world that make us feel unloved, unworthy or incompetent. A few drips here and there wouldn't make a big difference to a stone, but many, many drops will cause the stone to slowly erode.

It's impossible to live among humans (all of us deeply flawed, to say the least) and make it to adulthood without having had our self-esteem eroded to some degree. That's life.

I really like the stone metaphor because it makes clear that self-esteem isn't something parents, or the world, "give" to children. Indeed, children are born with all the self-esteem they'll ever need; a parent's job is to help protect what's already there.

3. We cannot 'boost' a child's self-esteem by praising their strengths or denying their deficiencies.

Self-esteem is not based on genetics or temperament. It's not bought with money, or built from compliments or awards. It's not something children earn or deserve or achieve, and has nothing to do with their skills or talents or looks. Telling a child she's smart or pretty — or convincing her that her weaknesses are not actually weaknesses — may bring a temporary smile to her face, but it will not boost her self-esteem. Neither will:

Getting an A in math. Being named Homecoming queen.

Being praised for good manners.

Being accepted at an an Ivy League school.

Winning a relay race.

Winning a Nascar race.

Winning a job promotion.

Winning an election.

Winning anything.

4. High self-esteem involves knowing and accepting our limitations.

People with high self-esteem do not feel they are great at everything. In fact, they may feel they suck at a great many things! I can't emphasize this enough. People confined to wheelchairs, unable to work or even talk, can still have high self-esteem; they just need to feel they're deserving of love, respect and belonging. (WHICH THEY ARE!)

Swedish author Jesper Juul, author of The Competent Child, wrote that a child with high self-esteem is one with a “sober, nuanced, and accepting self-image." I love that word — sober. It means that the kid doesn't need to bullshit himself. He can view himself the way he really is — bad, good and neutral. He knows when it's time to dig down and try harder, and when further efforts would be futile.

I don't deny that self-compassion helps us recover after a loss or failure. But high self-esteem is not, as Neff suggests, what makes failure feel debilitating. It's what allows us to fail and not feel debilitated.

5. Domineering personalities grow out of low self-esteem.

People don't gain self-esteem by being dicks. Yes, low self-esteem is almost always the driving force behind bullying, boasting or grandstanding; but dominating someone can't make a person feel more deserving of love, respect or belonging. It can only disguise their pain.

“High self-esteem is not a noisy concept,” Dorothy Corkille Briggs wrote in her must-read book Your Child’s Self-Esteem. “It’s a quiet sense of self-respect, a feeling of self-worth.”

Amen to that.

6. High self-esteem is the secret to happiness, humility, compassion, and —yes — success.

Renowned psychologist Carl Rogers, one of the founding fathers of psychotherapy, once said, “How we think about ourselves, our feelings of self-worth, are of fundamental importance both to psychological health and to the likelihood that we can achieve goals and ambitions in life.”

In other words, for us parents, it's the holy fucking grail — offering our kids a strong foundation for everything we want them to be and do in life.

And this, my friends, is precisely why it's so very frustrating to see high self-esteem being shit on over and over again by contemporary writers, oft-quoted psychologists, late-night comedians and even, now, my beloved Happiness Lab.

Yes, we do indeed need to dump our inner drill sergeants, I wholeheartedly agree. But we also need to dump language that disparages one of humanity's greatest assets.


So now that you know what self-esteem is and isn't, you might be wondering: What specifically tears down a child's self-esteem? What, specifically, preserves it? And what can we, as parents, do to help?

I'm so glad you asked! Because that is the subject of my very next blog. Stay tuned, and — in the meantime — remember: YOU ARE WORTHY.