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The problem with praise: Author says self-esteem kick is hobbling society

Publication Date: 2008-08-31

from the Rutland Herald, August 31, 2008. This book offrs an antidote to our culture's obsession with perfect children.

By Kevin O'Connor

Vermont psychologist Polly Young-Eisendrath remembers when she first noticed people in their 20s and 30s reporting the same symptoms: They felt deficient or dissatisfied. Feared humiliation. Fell at times into depression, anxiety or addiction.

The therapist, seeking the cause, asked each about their childhoods. She found similarities â" but not based on any shared disadvantage. Instead, all recalled parents who deemed them âspecialâ and doled out gold stars and âgood job!â praise for the simplest and smallest of actions.

Young-Eisendrath, a 61-year-old mother and grandmother, started thinking.

âI wondered if the restlessness, self-obsession and cynicism that I witnessed in youth and children had to do with the dying out of âtraditionalâ parenting, the kind that I grew up with, where the lines between the generations were clearly drawn and a hierarchy of power was always in place.â

And so she began to research and write her new book. The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance is her 256-page answer to the question of whatâs ailing todayâs seemingly well-off youth and how their troubles are affecting society.

The therapist only has to follow the news to find examples. The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, for example, just announced that a tougher state law targeting teen speeders has reduced fatal crashes by 37 percent â" and raised familiesâ demands for taxpayer-supported ticket-reconsideration hearings by 20 percent.

So what happens when todayâs youth become tomorrowâs lawmakers, teachers, repairmen and nurses?

Young-Eisendrath, in practice for two decades, has read plenty of books about the problem of idealizing and indulging children. But other than the cocktail recipes in the strange-but-true motherâs guide âThe Three-Martini Playdate,â she found little that was stirring up conversation about a solution. Thatâs why she spent a year interviewing young people, parents, school and social workers and mental health experts.

Her book, which Little, Brown and Company will release Tuesday, is reaping good reviews from fellow therapists like Michael Gurian, author of the national bestseller âThe Wonder of Boysâ (he calls it âgroundbreakingâ). Young-Eisendrath now hopes what she discovered will get everyone else talking.

Leading to failure

Drive 10 miles north from the Statehouse in Montpelier and youâll reach the small town of Worcester, where, up a hidden, hillside road, Young-Eisendrath lives and works.

An Ohio native who moved to Vermont 12 years ago, sheâs a psychologist (a social scientist of the brain and its behavior), a psychotherapist (a specialist who treats mental issues) and, specifically, a Jungian analyst (a practitioner of pioneer C.G. Jungâs ideas for studying the unconscious).

And thatâs just the start. Young-Eisendrath is a consultant for leadership development at Norwich University and a clinical associate professor at the University of Vermont. She also has written or edited more than a dozen books that have been translated into 20 languages, with titles including âThe Resilient Spirit: Transforming Suffering Into Insight and Renewalâ and âYouâre Not What I Expected: Love After the Romance Has Ended.â

Her latest work wasnât sparked by her own scholarship, however, but by the suffering of others. She saw many young people growing up in nurturing households, only to tailspin when they traded the nest for the real world. Some felt entitled yet self-conscious and confused. Others felt stifling pressure to be exceptional. Still others felt hopeless or helpless because they couldnât have or be what they imagined.

Some clinical psychologists, watching such youth reel through a revolving door of jobs and relationships, figured it was simply âattention deficitâ or the effects of television, computer games and other fast-forward culture. But Young-Eisendrath wasnât convinced. And so she started investigating.

Her first finding: The nation is reeling from a âtectonic cultural shiftâ in child-rearing techniques. Parents in the first half of the 20th century based their teachings on the âgolden ruleâ of respect. But over the past 40 years, families have heard lots of hype about the importance of self-esteem and the need to strengthen it with praise.

Many took this beyond a gold star on a chore chart. Young-Eisendrath interviewed one grandmother who complained that her daughter threw a party to celebrate her toddlerâs toilet training.

âTodayâs parents tend to offer too much approval and enthusiasm for their childrenâs very existence, disrupting the childâs growing ability to discern the truth about her own effects and actions,â the therapist writes in her book. âInstead of helping our children learn how to work, love and share in their families and communities, we taught them to focus on their own achievements and expectations for success.â

And that, she found, is leading to failure.

âNot about blameâ

Young-Eisendrath, whose blended family includes six grown children, reassures parents that she empathizes.

âI want to be very clear here,â she says in an interview. âThis is not a book about blame.â

Instead, sheâs hoping to help people recognize and rectify their mistakes.

âI believe that never before has it been so confusing and destabilizing to be a parent. And never before have we had a generation of such confused and unhappy young adults whose lives seem desirable from the outside. Something has gone drastically wrong.â

How can praise and protection harm a child? Young-Eisendrath says a constant diet of âjunk praiseâ for basics like sitting up straight can spark an unhealthy hunger for admiration or approval. And parents who âhelicopterâ over high school and college students deny youth the opportunity to learn how to make personal judgments.

âOver time, children can actually lose confidence in their own capacity to assess themselves if their parents overpraise, and this leaves them â" teens especially â" very susceptible to peer pressure and pop culture.â

This trend isnât confined to MTV or shopping malls. Young-Eisendrath writes: âAs much as I love and embrace the culture of my adopted state (Iâve been here 12 years), I have discovered a kind of specialness here too: a type of perfectionism about food, exercise and creativity in family life that can lead to the trap of believing that life can be controlled in order to do everything âjust right.ââ

Perfectionism, she says, can prevent people from being realistic, flexible and modest. Consider the young man she tags with the pseudonym âAndrew.â Attractive, artistic and athletic, the Ivy League graduate is nonetheless so insecure with work and relationships he has spent the past six years on antidepressants.

âAndrew had for many years felt unclear about how to guide himself and do what would be expected of an adult,â she writes. âAndrew felt that he failed if he didnât produce something spectacular after just a few months, even weeks, in a new endeavor.â

He isnât alone.

Worries at home, work

Young-Eisendrath cites statistics that show only about 2 percent of Americans born before 1915 experienced a major depressive episode even though they lived through the Great Depression and two world wars. In comparison, the rate for todayâs young people has risen to 15 to 20 percent.

âTodayâs families are raising our future,â she says. âAnd many of them are in trouble.â

The therapist points to over-the-top examples like Paris Hilton, âwho is famous mostly for being famous.â But she also tells the story of a freshman at Saint Michaelâs College in Colchester who sniffed during dorm orientation: âSharing a bathroom? This is so not going to work.â

In another instance from the same school, a mother phoned a college official to say her child was calling home with complaints. The parent asked what she should do.

The reply: âDonât answer the phone.â

(Students should learn to speak for themselves, the official explained before taking his own advice and quitting after too much parental interference.)

Young-Eisendrath says coddling can spawn problems when students enter the workplace â" especially for youth unaccustomed to the low wages and menial tasks of entry-level jobs.

âIf our parents were afraid to act as authority figures,â she writes, âwe may be left with a premature belief in the excellence of our own judgments and overstep boundaries with those who are more experienced â" only to feel ashamed and defeated when we are criticized for it.â

Young people can stumble in personal relationships, too.

âThe normal disillusionments of romance â" when faults and difficulties make a potential partner seem ugly or inferior and power struggles abound â" are frightening,â she continues. âGen Meâers tend to run the other way. They assume that theyâve chosen the wrong person. The fact is theyâd have to stick around longer in order to find out.â

In the bookâs most extreme example of too much freedom, the therapist recalls the 2001 murders of two Dartmouth professors. The two Vermont teenagers convicted of the crime attended the grade K-12 Chelsea School, which had relaxed its rules in hopes that students, free of adult intrusion, would discover, develop and âbecome themselves.â

Young-Eisendrath is careful not to blame any parent or teacher. But she points to the opinion of Chelsea psychiatrist Andy Pomerantz. Seven years ago he told the New York Times: âSometimes people do very bad things â" it doesnât mean that thereâs something wrong with our community.â Now, upon reflection, heâs quoted in the book as saying his town failed the boys because it never addressed their arrogance with proper discipline and restraint.

âKnow how to helpâ

So how can parents, schools and communities raise respectful, responsible children? Young-Eisendrath draws her answers not only from psychology and psychotherapy but also from the worldâs religious traditions, starting with her 37-year practice of Buddhism.

The therapist says children, rather than listening to a constant chorus of âgood job,â need to learn how to assess and be accountable for themselves.

âAccurate self-esteem includes a knowledge of our weaknesses and limitations,â she writes. âIt allows us to acknowledge when we need the help of others, as well as what we can do independently and well.â

(âYou should be able to complain straightforwardly about your kid,â she adds, âbecause your kid causes you a lot of trouble in addition to bringing you joy.â)

Young-Eisendrath says chores can teach children about generosity and discipline, while adversity offers lessons in patience and diligence. Citing her own upbringing, she explains how she was expected to work at home (she was an only child), school (she was valedictorian) and a 20-hour-a-week job (her paycheck helped fund her working-class household).

âUntil you really know what suffering is,â she says, âyou do not know how to help.â

But many parents not only shield their children from responsibility but also sweep up their mistakes. That, the author says, is a bigger blunder.

âExcessive parental problem-solving actually prevents children from having real experiences of decision making, failing and cleaning up their own messes,â she writes. âOverpraising and running interference weaken the legs that our children need to stand on when they leave home.â

The therapist stresses that parents can still protect.

âThis doesnât mean parents should throw their children to the wolves,â she says, âbut rather they should be sure that their children learn how to fight the wolves for themselves before leaving home.â

Children should be able to learn from their missteps, she believes.

âInstead of thinking in terms of protecting them from negative outcomes or feelings, parents should think in terms of allowing them to experience and then express the consequences of what they tried,â she writes. âYour job is not to be your childâs best friend, but rather to prepare him to have a fulfilling life of his own.â

And reap all the intangible rewards.

On chores:

âKeep in mind the spirit of generosity and gratitude when you teach your child to do chores. The reason for chores is to help your child become responsible for othersâ welfare as well as his own.

Find chores that are truly important (for example, caring for a pet or plant) and age-appropriate.

Be specific and detailed in showing your child how to do the chore, watch over him for a while, and then let the task be up to your child. Of course, remain in the background as a safety net (donât let the cat die of malnourishment if your son doesnât feed it), but donât take over the responsibility either.

Your child should actually feel the negative consequences of not performing a chore or doing it poorly.

There is nothing that increases resilience in children more than feeling they are able to perform important tasks and can be depended upon.â

And challenges:

âWhen an age-appropriate problem or difficulty presents itself in your childâs life, encourage her to jump in and attempt to solve it.

If things work out well, let her reward come directly from the situation, not mostly from your praise.

If things go badly, or not as she would wish, allow her to engage with the negative feelings and outcomes, while supporting her by being confident (âI really believe that you can get through this.â) Conveying directly or indirectly that sheâs strong enough to weather the storm helps her develop a healthier psychological immune system.

Counsel your child against believing that her happiness will come mostly from external things â" her appearance, grades, athletic successes â" because it wonât.â

â" From The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance by Polly Young-Eisendrath. The $25.99 hardcover, published by Little, Brown and Company, can be purchased or ordered at most bookstores.

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