Thoughts on Self-Esteem and Respect for Children

A recurring theme in my writing is the quest for self-esteem, particularly by youth, and the positive benefits to individual (and societal) development that flow from achieving and maintaining that self-esteem. There has been a lot of effort in recent decades to focus parenting and educational practice on promoting self-esteem in youth, which I think is a good thing, but is still controversial. Critics of efforts to encourage self-esteem in youth, rightly point out that there have been misguided efforts as well, such as simply telling kids that everything they do is wonderful (which even the kids know is not true), which in my mind encourages narcissism rather than self-esteem. Other critics say that too much self-esteem is a bad thing, turning otherwise respectful kids into insensitive brats.

So is self-esteem a good thing and can you have too much of it? And how does it differ from narcissism?

According to Wikipedia, “narcissism” describes the trait of excessive self-love, based on self-image or ego, derived from the Greek mythology of Narcissus, a handsome Greek youth who rejected the advances of the nymph Echo, and as punishment, was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. In modern usage the term often denotes vanity, conceit, egotism or simple selfishness, or applied to a social group, it is sometimes used to denote elitism or an indifference to the plight of others.

Again from Wikipedia, they describe several definitions for “self-esteem” including one attributed to social learning theorist Morris Rosenberg that was used in research circles in the mid 1960s that focused simply on a sense of personal worth, which could be indistinguishable from narcissism.

But they also cite another definition, from psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden in 1969, “…the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness”, that is a basic human need that is indispensable to normal and healthy self-development.

This is amplified by American psychologist Abraham Maslow, who described two different forms of esteem, respect from others (including recognition, acceptance, status, and appreciation) and self-respect. According to Maslow, individuals lacking self-esteem will be driven to seek it and unable to grow and obtain self-actualization, that is becoming everything one is capable of becoming.

One of the great challenges I believe each of us faces in modern American society is to rise above the alienation and anonymity that is an undesirable byproduct of many of us:

• Living in large cities where we don’t have a sense of community, and don’t know, or even fear, our neighbors

• Participating in large bureaucratic institutions where who we are as individuals often doesn’t seem to matter

• Being subject to massive social-engineering efforts (within those institutions), including advertising and standardized education, that are designed to improve abstract aggregate metrics of human behavior but may not in fact address our individual needs

In my mind, self-actualization (as the old US Army ad said, being “all that you can be”) is the key to not only rising above this alienation and anonymity but also working, even if only in a small way, to build community where it is currently lacking, humanize institutions, or challenge one-size-fits-all social-engineering efforts. And as Maslow points out, achieving self-actualization requires self-esteem based on self-respect and the respect of others.

As a youth in contemporary society, it is particularly difficult to acquire self-respect or a sense of self-worth, because you have such a limited skill set and limited opportunities to be of value to others. In the agrarian American society of the 18th Century, children were valuable as an extra pair of hands doing chores on the farm, and could derive self-worth and self-respect from that work.

In our contemporary urban society, children contribute nothing economically to society as such, are seldom in a position of being of service to the community, but require a huge expenditure of time and other resources, by family and the larger community, to maintain and develop. It is only if they can navigate their way to adulthood, while developing useful skills along the way, that they can then be a net plus to society. This is not a recipe for self-worth during the pre-adult childhood and adolescence periods.

Add to that a prevailing Calvinist thread in our culture that sees everyone as inherently depraved and in need of developing the humility and respect for God and their “betters”. This cultural thread impacts particularly hard on children who are viewed as the most depraved because they have not yet had the opportunity to develop that humility and respect. So consistent with that cultural thread, the vice-principal at my daughter’s school would say to the students, “You should automatically respect your teachers. You on the other hand need to earn their respect.” This maybe subtle and persistent Calvinism is also not a recipe for kids developing self-worth, self-respect and self-esteem.

So the way I see it, it makes sense that we adults, particularly we politically progressive adults, try to mitigate these things by treating children with respect, whether they have earned it or not, and also give them every opportunity to develop self-respect by contributing to their community and contribute to the institutions, like schools, designed to nurture and bring them into contributory adulthood.

In fact, to isolate our youth from the adult community in schools, which may well reinforce their sense of not having a current (though still perhaps a potential) value to society, seems problematic to me. Isolated as they are from the ability to contribute to others, we compound the problem by requiring them to focus almost solely on their own development, which may be more of a recipe for narcissism than real self-esteem. Then we dole out bits of conditional respect and esteem only if they achieve good grades and exhibit compliant or cooperative behavior, rather than acknowledging their inherent worth and dignity and not applying this crude behavior modification.

I think it is critical that we adults treat our children and youth with respect, based first of all on our belief (Calvin be damned!) in the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, and secondly that our children are the future of our society and culture. What self-respecting adult that is not consumed by narcissism, and believes in helping others, and in promoting the larger human community, would not want to give respect to the next generation?

So what about the Golden Rule, to treat others as you would have them treat you? Was my daughter’s vice-principal applying the Golden Rule when he said that the students are only entitled to respect after they demonstrate respect for their teachers, behave well and demonstrate that they are working hard? It sounds to me more like give me the respect I am due and then you will have the possibility of earning respect yourself.

4 replies on “Thoughts on Self-Esteem and Respect for Children”

  1. I think that it is so important for children to have a high self-esteem and that by adults treating them with respect this can be done. I think though that in order for an adult to treat a child with respect, he/she must have respect for themselves. Patricia Spadaro has come out with a great book titled, “Honor Yourself: The Inner Art of Giving and Receiving,” which I have found incredibly valuable in my life. Patricia’s book points out that a person is unable to give to other’s until they are able to give to themselves.

  2. Becky… thanks for sharing the info about Spadaro’s book, I think you and she are making a very important point. I do think that maybe the best we can do as adults is model treating others (adults & youth) with respect and giving kids as much of a loving and enriched environment as possible, plus as much interaction with helpful adults as possible.

    In a nutshell, what does Spadaro say are the key requirements for kids to be able to give to themselves?

  3. Excellent post! I am not a regular reader of this blog, I stumbled across it searching on the terms “Calvinism” and “Self Esteem”. I am a Calvinist who has been under-going a bit of a paradigm shift in my own understanding of self esteem.

    I understand where there can be some resentment toward Calvin’s teachings based on other people’s understanding of him. Especially when there is a whole culture that holds some serious misconceptions of Calvin’s teachings. But I would not hold him responsible for the poor teaching on the subject of ‘self-esteem’ from American fundamentalism. Ironically, evangelicals have also swayed back and forth from poor self esteem and narcissism.

    Calvin understood that man and woman was created in God’s image. We were designed specifically to be in perfect union with God. From this, it is very important we have a good self esteem. Why shouldn’t we? However, it is our own sin that has caused a separation between us and God. This separation was breeched through the death, burial, and resurrection of His son, Jesus Christ.

    So, in a sense, our bad self esteem has credibility in that it is true we are sinners. However, our faith in Christ’s work on the cross should cause us to nurture a very positive self-esteem, avoiding narcissism in knowing we did not earn our right. It was given to us.

    I think the most damaging belief system to our self-esteem has been evolution. If we were not created for a purpose, and we are here by chance, why should I feel good about it? More importantly, how can I feel good about it without becoming narcissistic? If we are only ‘more evolved’ animals, why wouldn’t kids act like animals?

    On another note, somewhere between 80% – 90% of all Calvin had written in Latin, has not yet been translated into English. What often passes for Calvinism today, often does not reflect what Calvin taught. Nonetheless, he has most certainly been the most influencing person in the history of Western civilization in the last 500 years.

  4. Tim… thanks for your thoughts on Calvinism and self-esteem! Though you and I may have very different points of view, I welcome the discussion.

    Though I have a lot of issues with Calvin’s philosophy, or at least my understanding of it, I do want to acknowledge how significant it was in the Protestant Reformation and the development of the ideas of individualism in the evolution of Western culture.

    In particular, I am very uncomfortable with Calvin’s idea of inherent depravity, and how that negatively impacts youth in particular. At least in my reading of history, Calvinism has contributed to “spare the rod and spoil the child” and a general sense by many adults, which seems still prevalent in many (most?) contemporary American schools that school-age youth are inherently unable to chart their own course.

    I am not a Christian myself, and I struggle with this Christian concept of “sin”. I have read that maybe a different translation of the original Aramaic or ancient Hebrew of the bible would be a word more like “unknowing” than “sin”. I would be more comfortable looking at a life’s experience as starting at “unknowing” and attempting to more towards “knowing”.

    I also don’t have the problem with the impacts of the philosophy of Evolution that you have. First of all, I find very little non-human animal behavior unethical, they coexist in harmony within the principles of their ecosystem. Secondly, I have more of a “new age” view that our human consciousness inhabits its various animal/human bodies for any number of lifetimes .

    So if you are willing, please say more of how one moves from innate depravity to self-esteem, following Calvinist ideology.

    Also FYI… you might be interested in my other blog post, “American Calvin” at Again… you may disagree with my take, but I would welcome the discussion.

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