As with several of the previous topics on parenting, this is one of the suggestions given by Leanord Sax in an article, “Don’t Ask the Kids,” in First Things, October 2016. His book on parenting is The Collapse of Parenting. Though I have adopted some of his subjects, I have developed them on my own, and I take full responsibility for mistakes I may be promoting.

The Summum Bonum

Educators seem to regard self-esteem as the highest good for children. I have no quarrel with the need for self-esteem but not as the highest good nor in the manner we’ve been told to instill it. Years ago, I read a study comparing math students in America with students from a northern European country (I don’t remember the country). Although the students in America tested well below the level of the other students, the American students felt good about themselves. Level of excellence meant very little to them, and I suspect it meant little to those in the educational establishment. Feeling awesome about yourself seems to matter more than achievement.


I don’t know how closely I can make the connection, but I think and exaggerated need for recognition and approval, can probably be related to an emphasis placed on self-esteem. Social media fuels the addiction for approval and recognition as well. The result has proven disastrous for many teen girls who feel the need to display themselves inappropriately on social media only to find out that the percentage of girls who get the following they crave is miniscule.

We could also ask why do shows offering fame appeal to so many people. Maybe fame isn’t even all that great. When Elvis Presley wanted to attend the amusement park in Memphis, he had to buy out the park just to get some privacy. Fame usually results in this lack of privacy, and not only does the quiet life disappear, but fame imprisons you in your private castle.

Not Everyone Needs (or deserves) an Award

If I ever meet the person who thought of giving everyone an award so that their self-esteem would flourish, I’m not sure what I would be tempted to do. On the one hand, perhaps they truly thought it would help to provide a little recognition for some kids. On the other hand, were they truly ignorant of the unintended consequences? Did they not realize that in doing this, they slowly destroyed the need to strive for excellence? The message kids get now is just show up and be rewarded, and the end result has been to punish achievers and reward those who don’t strive.

In the work environment that I’ve seen, striving for excellence is no longer the goal. It certainly isn’t a requirement. The standard has become a simple matter of showing up and expecting great things to happen to a career, or worse, demanding that promotions come with a minimum of effort. After all, we think, don’t we deserve it? We’ve been given undeserved accolades all this time, and we think the world should just hand them to us.

Humility Before Awesomeness

I suggest a return to teaching the virtue of humility, the virtue of not exaggerating one’s sense of importance. Humility doesn’t destroy one’s self-esteem, rather it keeps people from being haughty and helps them recognize that they aren’t as great as they might think. The effect isn’t meant to make people doormats. A humble person accepts criticism because they recognize improvements can always be made. Humble people know they always have room to improve themselves, and they find out that self-esteem comes when they actually achieve something or overcome an obstacle.

Giving positive feedback for genuine effort is not the same as giving undeserved recognition. People who are constantly told how great they are get no legitimate sense of their weaknesses or, more importantly, how to overcome them. Society can tell kids they can be anything they want to be, but reality hits home when they realize they might never swim like Michael Phelps or sing like John Legend. We sell them frustration until they realize they aren’t as awesome as some people have told them.

What Parents Can Do

Teach your children they don’t have to brag; tell them to let their achievements speak for them and let their praise come from others. Praise them when they do good things, especially when they overcome a difficult problem. Don’t remove every obstacle; they will develop self-esteem when they figure out how to overcome it. Achievement is the best builder of self-esteem. One of life’s greatest paradoxes is that humility opens doors but pride comes before a fall.

© 2024 Robert T. Weber, Words Done Right LLC and The Lazarus Chronicles

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