Much has been written about President Donald Trump's braggadocio, conceit and obsession with winning. His crowd sizes are the biggest. His buildings are the tallest. His brain is the smartest. His economy is the best.
“People love me!” he was once quoted as saying. “My whole life is about winning… I almost never lose!”
It’s no wonder, then, that Trump has become the poster boy for a rapidly growing and deeply unfortunate modern movement against self-esteem.
In March 2016, progressive comedian Bill Maher used a segment of his late-night talk show to argue that Trump’s highly exaggerated brand of conceit was a direct result of things like “Trophy Syndrome” — the idea that all kids deserve a trophy no matter how they play the game.
“You can run the other way on the field and score five points for the other team,” Maher said, “and you’re still a winner!”
Maher's unfortunate conclusion?
“Every time a parent takes the kid’s side over the teacher’s, or asks a child where they want to go for dinner, or doesn’t say ‘Be quiet when adults are talking,’ you are creating the Donald Trumps of tomorrow.”
I often appreciate Maher’s cynical brand of comedy. But he was so wrong about this it wasn't even funny.
In fact, the talk show host was perpetuating not one, but two myths that have spread like viruses over the past two decades: First, that “inflated” self-esteem can lead to narcissism and other problem behavior, and, second, that giving every kid a trophy leads to this inflated sense of self-esteem.
Many psychologists have pointed to the Millennial generation — born between the 1980s and early 2000s — as an example of self-esteem run amok. Regardless of fairness or accuracy, many Millennials have been labeled as entitled, ungrateful and lazy. This, we are told, is a direct result of feeling “too good” about themselves.
“If a child feels great about himself even when he does nothing, why do anything?” psychologist Jean Twenge famously asks in her oft-quoted book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before. “Self-esteem without basis encourages laziness rather than hard work.”
It’s easy to see why this theory is so compelling. When a man like Donald Trump, a powerful businessman-turned-president, talks incessantly about his intellect, shrewdness, and crowd sizes — even in the face of evidence to the contrary — one might reasonably assume that he has been raised to love and accept himself no matter what.
The irony, though, is that Trump’s braggadocio is a classic defense strategy — a mask worn to disguise his low self-esteem. In other words, narcissism and conceit are not displayed by people who love and accept themselves; it’s exactly the opposite.
“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.”
Narcissism and conceit are not displayed by people who love and accept themselves; it’s exactly the opposite.
According to Alfie Kohn, educator and author of highly researched books, including Unconditional Parenting, is clear on this point. The sort of narcissistic tendencies we see in Trump, he said, are classic offshoots of dangerously low self-esteem.
“Any person with the slightest understanding of human behavior, any psychotherapist worth his or her salt, knows that Donald Trump is desperately compensating for an absence of self-esteem,” Kohn told me in an interview. “The man is in danger of de-compensating. At some level, he has this constant terror of worthlessness, and he [tries] to overcompensate with almost self-parody levels of self-congratulation and self-aggrandizement.”
When Trump — who was, as we now know, raised by a famously controlling father — says things like “People love me!” and “My whole life is about winning!” — he’s not trying to boast about what he has; he’s making up for what he doesn’t.
As for the notion that children who feel good about themselves “without basis” — a lá trophies for everyone — are more likely to put forth less effort in life, that’s a myth, as well.
Kids with high self-esteem are more likely to persist at difficult tasks but also to recognize when their persistence would gain them nothing; they are more, not less, in touch with their personal limitations — and are accepting of them.
The whole trophy debate is misplaced anyway. Trophies, whether they go to one person or 20, are just a way of motivating kids externally, and external rewards do not build self-esteem; they never have. They just keep kids looking outside themselves, to the judgment of others, to measure their self-worth. The more trophies kids win, the more they depend on those trophies to keep them feeling okay about their abilities. All we have to do is look to our own experience with rewards and trophies to feel, in our bones, that this is true.
Unfortunately, the public marketplace is packed full of misinformation about self-esteem right now. While researching ParentShift, I ran across countless parenting authors, bloggers, and podcasters who, like Maher, have bought into the anti-self-esteem movement.
Trophies, whether they go to one person or 20, are just a way of motivating kids externally, and external rewards do not build self-esteem; they never have.
Kohn said he believes this speaks to the success of political conservatives whose views about child-rearing tend toward the controlling end of the parenting-style spectrum.
“A deeply conservative set of assumptions about children and parenting have been accepted as the conventional wisdom, even among political progressives,” Kohn said. “So that even people who are appalled by Trump and who are concerned about global climate change and who have the right idea about civil rights, when the talk turns to children, they sound like they’re on Fox News all of a sudden.”
It’s absolutely true that some children turn out to be narcissistic, conceited and overly entitled. They show little empathy or compassion for others, seek only their personal comfort, and serve only their personal needs. It’s a problem, and reversing the trend is a great idea.
But we'll never get there unless we stop viewing high self-esteem as a problem — and start viewing it as the solution.