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Wellington Daily News - Wellington, KS
  • Dr. Elaine Heffner: Parental self-esteem

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  • Any parent seeking the latest research about raising a psychologically healthy child might well be risking his or her own psychological health. No sooner is one set of guidelines proclaimed when another contradictory set appears to challenge the first.
    A body of thought given much currency is that parents are guilty both of driving children relentlessly toward academic success while at the same time over-indulging them. The thinking is that children are praised and rewarded without regard to real achievement on their part – such as trophies just for playing rather than for winning.
    Author Alfie Kohn, in an article derived from his book “The Myth of the Spoiled Child,” portrays those who believe in such a thesis as assuming that the best way to get children ready for the miserable “real world” that awaits them is to make sure that they have plenty of miserable experiences while they are young.
    Kohn believes this is based on three values: Kids shouldn’t be spared struggle and sacrifice, excellence is something that not everyone can attain and only a few should get A’s – to have high standards there must always be losers. Finally, conditionality: Children should never receive anything desirable unless they’ve done enough to merit it.
    While much has been written lately about the downside of trophies given with little regard for real achievement, the point really being made is that awards without merit hold little value, even to the children who receive them. There are differing points of view about the value of competition. However, if competition is the objective, there are always going to be winners and losers. There is a contradiction in promoting competition and then denying it by not accurately reflecting its results.
    It is far from inflicting “miserable experiences” on children to say that real things that are unhappy or unpleasant occur in children’s lives. As parents, we can help them process these things in a way that they can deal with. Becoming able to master difficulties is strength-producing – more so than the idea that you are so fragile that you must be protected. At the same time we try not to expose children needlessly to matters that are beyond their developmental level to comprehend.
    Kohn refers to other research showing that when children feel their parents’ affection is contingent on their achievement, this promotes the development of a fragile or unstable sense of self. Still other researchers have shown that although high self-esteem is beneficial, even more desirable is unconditional self-esteem. This means a belief in oneself and a belief that you are competent and worthwhile. Turning back to trophies, the author’s view is that it is the unconditionality that has been attacked that actually is a defining feature of psychological health.
    All of which points to the fact that trying to raise children in accordance with the latest research findings can only lead you down the garden path. Apart from the question of the validity of any given research finding, more relevant for any individual parent is the question of how any set of prescriptions or recommendations relate to oneself or one’s child.
    Page 2 of 2 - What carries the most weight in influencing children is authenticity: not pretending to be someone you are not or that your child is someone other than he or she is. Parental self-esteem is the most significant ingredient. Believing in yourself as a parent enables you to show belief in your child – your understanding of both his strengths and the weaknesses that need your support. Research should bolster parents’ self-esteem, not demonstrate that what they are doing is wrong.
    Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.

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