Saturday, April 9, 2011


"Scientists have not been able to find any correlation between a child's self-esteem and any important behavior or skill in a child's social, emotional, or intellectual life."   Life Skills for Kids

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.-Romans 12:3

The point is not that feeling bad about ourselves is good, but rather that only two things can truly change how we feel about ourselves. Real accomplishment and real love.
The Problem of Self-Esteem

In recent decades, there was a pop psychology fixation on developing self-esteem    This seemed to be thought of as a cure-all and elixir of well-being.   Then evidence started coming out that whatever phenomenon was defined as "self-esteem" was in fact not correlated to any kind of measurable success.   Some conservatives, suspicious of secular pop psychology, often critiqued the concept sharply, but sometimes they inadvertently muddled distinctions by making achievement or behavior a test of the validity of the term.

"Self-esteem doesn't help kids get better math scores."
"People can have low self-esteem and still succeed in being historically notable."

The problem with this kind of statement seems to be in what it concedes.... that esteem is purely about the exterior, that self-worth is a quantifiable.  Isn't that falling into a slightly older form of pop psychology -- the behavioristic emphasis on exteriors, on measurable outcomes, as the only valid criterion for a psychological concept?

I recently reread Smart Love by William and Martha Pieper, and though I didn't subscribe to everything in the book, I did like their distinction between primary and secondary affirmation.    Benedict's Rule sketches the difference implicitly.    God loves the sinner.   He loves him totally without condition.   Our Savior died for us while we were yet sinners.   Yet God is pleased with the righteous man.    The righteous man, through grace, is part of God's life in a way that the sinner is not, while yet a sinner running from God.   The prayer of a righteous man avails much. 

Primary affirmation, to bring it across to secular psychology terms, is concerned with the child as he exists.  His first need is for sacrificial love and a basic kind of safety.    The physical emblems of love and safety are nourishment and holding.    But just food and a secure container aren't really enough --  nourishment and holding are associated from before birth with physical, relational closeness to another human (the mother). 

Sure, there are other ways to compensate for the lack of this.  Aidan spent his neonatal days flat in a hospital isolette receiving nutrition through a nasal tube.   He's OK emotionally now; we stayed as close as we could then and afterwards. 

Now, secondary affirmation comes slightly later.  The child is carried and observes and reaches and later crawls and walks.    He becomes aware of himself as an agent.   People respond to his voice and expression and what he does.   Later on he develops skills and habits that lead to further successes.   Secondary affirmation has to do with competence.

I think both are good but they aren't meant to stand in for each other.   You want a child who is loved unconditionally as he is, and a child who is approved of for what he does.  In a family it comes naturally to develop both of these alongside each other.   Placing them in opposition is probably not very safe.    A person who develops his self-image based only on what he achieves is a walking Russian roulette.   A person who thinks the world owes him homage just because he wants and craves and hungers is basically a grown-up baby.

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