Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Overestimating Esteem

I'm getting a bit steamed about esteem.

OK, so maybe it's just the word, but I've been bothered a lot lately by lies repeated often enough that people think they're truth, and perhaps this is more like a non-truth repeated too often.

I'm speaking, of course, about children and the oddly-used concept of "self-esteem" in regard to decisions made about them.  The principle, if my inference is close, is that children should not be made to feel bad about themselves, which is probably reasonable (or even allowed to, which is just stupid, but I digress parenthetically).  The words used, however, i.e., "self-esteem", convey the corollary, which is that kids should think they are great, which is a real crock of butter-slathered hooey.

Kids, and adults for that matter, should think they are great when and if they do something great.  Self-esteem is simply thinking that you are great at something, or have done something great, and feeling good about yourself for that.  You earn self-esteem.  Not everyone has it, and not everyone deserves it.  Welcome to earth.

What kids and adults, and the rest of us who don't fit into either category somehow, should have is something different, and that is called self-respect.  The big lie, I believe, is the notion that the two are the same thing, when they are far from it and have nothing to do with one another.  Moreover, the lessons we teach when we favor one over the other are the wrong lessons.

Here's the thing.  Self-respect is the idea that as a human being, you are granted the dignity of humanity by your Creator.  It is the notion that human rights apply to you every bit as much as they do to the other seven billion-odd earthlings, even to liberals.

So the lesson we should be teaching children is that as human beings, they do not have to allow themselves to be subjected to subhuman treatment, like bullying in all its forms, whether from Butchy Lonigan and his toady, or from the Obama IRS, or ISIS.  We should be teaching our young girls to respect themselves enough to make good decisions where guys are concerned, if'n you know what I mean.  That, friends, is called "self-respect."

Instead, we keep referring to this concept of "self-esteem", and that just doesn't cut it.  Poor little Johnny or Mary has "low self-esteem" and we have to fix it.   Grrrrrrr.

Earth to Johnny and Mary's parents: if your kid has low self-esteem, it's generally because there's no reason for them to be esteemed.  That's right, your kid is probably perfectly normal, which means good over here, not-so-good over there, netting out to a normal kid.  Garrison Keillor might not let you in his town, but otherwise no worries.  Learn to parent a normal child, por favor.

The problem with all this is that we end up "esteeming" things that are not worthy of esteem, and that totally undermines the value system we should be trying to impart to them.  We give trophies for "participating", trash awards that make kids think they actually accomplished something, and God forbid anyone actually, you know, win.

You know what?  Just go achieve something in academics or athletics or the arts or service, and earn self-esteem.  Self-esteem is an honor, and honors are not for everyone, lest they no longer become honorable.

No one explained this (or anything else) better than W.S. Gilbert, in a song from The Gondoliers, where the Grand Inquisitor of Spain tells the story of a king who wanted everyone as rich as he was, so he promoted the entire populace to high posts.  Naturally, it didn't work, as he sings:

"That King, although no one denies his heart was of abnormal size,
Yet he'd have acted otherwise, if he had been acuter.
The end is easily foretold, when every blessed thing you hold
Is made of silver, or of gold, you long for simple pewter.
When you have nothing else to wear but cloth of gold and satins rare,
For cloth of gold you cease to care -- up goes the price of shoddy.
In short, whoever you may be, to this conclusion you'll agree,
When every one is "somebodee", then no one's anybody!"

Let us turn, then, to promoting nothing; rather, let us commit ourselves to raising our children to respect themselves rather than overvaluing themselves.  "To thine own self be true, then canst thou be not false to any man", wrote Shakespeare, and the principle remains 400 years since.  If we teach our kids to lie to themselves about who or what they are, they have no compunction about growing up and saying things like, well, I don't know, "If you like your insurance policy you can keep it" -- that sort of thing.

Save the esteem for the properly esteemed, and the trophies to them who have earned them.

Copyright 2015 by Robert Sutton
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