There are over forty-six million entries on Google on how to build your child’s self-esteem. Forty-six million!!!
We’ve been told for decades that this is the job of parents to make sure their children have healthy self-esteem so they can go off into the world and become responsible, well-functioning adults.
It seems reasonable. I used to buy it. But, now, I see things different. (Read part one in this series: 4 Reasons Why You Don’t Need More Self-Esteem to learn more about my position on self-esteem.)
Self-esteem is like Jell-O. It’s sweet. It tastes good on the tongue. But there’s really nothing to it. You can fill your mouth with a big old spoonful of the strawberry flavor (my favorite!) and after a minute or so, it just dissolves to nothing. (And, every dieter knows that means “empty calories!”)
When we try to build our children’s self-esteem, we attempt to fill them with Jell-O. Meanwhile, the sugary artificial flavors eat away at their teeth and damage their insulin resistance, and they never actually feel full.
It’s not just me who feels this way. Recently, more and more secular psychologists are coming out and saying self-esteem doesn’t do what we hoped it would. Having increased levels of self-esteem doesn’t actually protect children from risky behaviors, nor does it help them succeed in life–be it relationships or at work.
Instead, self-esteem leads to an increased incidence of narcissism. Children who grow up with increased self-focus are less able to have healthy relationships as adults and makes them awful employees.
Here’s a snippet of the article linked above:
“Noting that there are “almost no findings showing that [high] self-esteem causes anything [beneficial] at all,” University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin Seligman laments:
“Something striking has happened to the self-esteem of American children during the era of raising our children to feel good. They have never been more depressed.”
This is no doubt partly because, raised to believe that they are special and perfect and entitled to all good things, they face terrible comedowns in the real world.”
Did you catch that last part? If our children are raised to believe they are special snowflakes, they grow up feeling entitled. This entitlement feeling leads to a great let down when they find the world hasn’t treated them as they deserve. Depression ensues.
I don’t want to set my children up for that kind of disappointment. They need protein, carbs, and fat. Not a Jell-O diet.
Humility: The Antidote?
So, how do we make sure our children know that God gave them a great purpose, that he does love and care for them, uniquely, and, at the same time, not get swept into the wave of vain self-esteem building?
The answer comes down to teaching them humility.
The Bible mentions being humble over thirty times. The first verse on humility that came to mind was from the old testament, the Micah 6:8 mandate to walk humbly with our God. But, it’s clear through scripture that we are to relate to others with humility as well. Here are just a few:
Ephesians 4:2a –“Be completely humble and gentle.”
Proverbs 11:2b— “With the humble is wisdom.”
1 Peter 3:3-4 — “Let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.”
Colossians 3:12–“Put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility . . .”
Galatians 5:13 — “Serve each other humbly with love.”
Regularly teaching our children how to walk in humility and modeling this type of Godly humility should be a bigger priority for every Christian parent than teaching self-esteem. Imagine it: If our children grow to know their worth through Christ alone. . .If they humbly submit to his lead and call for their life, knowing that He will make their paths straight and strengthen them. . .If they act humbly in their relationships with bosses, co-workers, friends and spouses. Wow! Isn’t that the type of child-turned-adult you’d like to raise? I know I would!
What to Do Instead of Teaching Self-Esteem
So, practically, how do we re-orient from shallow boasting in our children’s greatness to training them in humility, right view of self and identity through Christ? Here are four ideas.
First: Encourage and Help Them Identify Their God-Given Strengths.
Philippians 4:13 is an awesome verse, but telling our kids that they can do “anything they want to” based on this verse is a set up for failure. I can do all things, that I am called to do, through Christ who strengthens me. But, believing I could someday be an Olympic gymnast (Note: I could not even do cartwheels- throwing my head towards the ground seemed dangerous!) would have been foolish.
Our children are gifted in some areas, and not gifted in others. It’s our job as parents to help them explore and find out in which areas they are gifted. Give them opportunities to grow and remind them, frequently, that practice leads to mastery. When you see aptitude shine through, don’t let them quit the first time it gets hard. Motivate them, push them, and let them know that everyone struggles. Help them learn humility through the struggle. Teach them to acknowledge others’ accomplishments before their own. Show them that even on their best day, there’s no room for pride. (Remember: Pride comes before the fall.)
More so, remind them that they have great purpose for the kingdom. No matter what area they are gifted in, God has a specific purpose for their life and the recipe for joy and contentment as an adult is living and thriving inside His design.
Second: Don’t B.S. About Their Weaknesses.
I get it. You don’t want your child to “feel bad.” But, blowing a bunch of hot air into our children isn’t what really inflates them. Being filled with false and shallow platitudes breeds foolish pride. Just be honest. “Sweetheart, ballet just may not be for you. But, let’s look at piano lessons? You thought that sounded fun?” Or, “Buddy, not everyone can play baseball well and that’s okay. God gave you other strengths. You want to take some computer classes?”
For a child to grow into a confident adult, he must know both where he is strong and where he is weak. Sugar-coating weaknesses will lead to a view of self that can (and will) be destabilized the instant the child leaves home and has someone else expose the truth!
Third: Keep the Emphasis on the Eternal, Not Temporal.
Tell your daughter she’s beautiful. Tell your son he’s a good-looking guy. But, if these are the only attributes you ever call out in your children, they will get the message that these physical, temporal traits are what matter most. Call out the fruits of the spirit you see developing in their hearts. Call out their gifts. Recognize them when you see them display noble character. If they feel your pleasure (and disappointment) relates more to the way they look (“You can’t wear that in public!” or “You should really lose weight so you’ll feel better!”), they will clearly hear the message that, no matter how the cliche goes, it’s what’s on the outside that counts.
Fourth: Remind Them That Christ’s Love and Sacrifice Give Them Value.
In Marketing 101 we learned how to set the value of any item. The formula? Something is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it! Do your children know what Christ paid for them? Do they understand the tremendous value placed on their life because of what God sacrificed to be with them? Have you ever thought about defining their value in this way?
We’re all on a quest to figure out what we are worth. As our children grow, they’ll look around to find the answer–just like we did. Self-esteem preaches to them that their value is inside, it’s intrinsic. “You are awesome! Just remember that!” But, the first time they mess up big, this self-esteem plummets. If my value is determined by my own awesomeness–and I just did something terribly un-awesome. I’m sunk.
Give them something meatier to sink their teeth into. Self-esteem and self-love’s Jell-O won’t ever satisfy. But the incredible love of Christ and our tremendous worth through him will never let them down.
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Amen! We were just discussing in bible study today the verse that says that Jesus did not consider equality with God to be something grasped (Phil 2:6).
He was more about showing humility and listening to the voice of God and acting accordingly. When our kids can identify with Christ’s humility and obeying the voice of God, they will have what they need to thrive. Thanks for a great article.