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A while back, there was an article in the Boston Globe by Barbara F. Meltz, called “Criticism can eat away at a youth’s self-worth”.   It contained some important points, but by being one-sided, it MISSED the overall point of criticism entirely, almost reducing it to bite-sized, black-and-white editorialism, not scholarship.

First, “do not nag your children lest they lose heart” is no more or less wise that “using the rod of correction.”  (figuratively or literally).  Shame in particular is a VITAL tool in teaching appropriateness of behaviour, and self-responsibility doesn’t come from blaming your actions for how you are, but the other way around. 

If you raise a child who has too LITTLE sense of shame because they’ve been given none by others who care about them, what kind of person will they grow up to be?

The answer is simple.  A criminal with a false sense of high self-esteem.  You heard me.  The idea that many people incarcerated by the justice system are there because they have poor self-esteem has been proven a FALLACY.  Hardcore criminals in particular have huge, ever-inflated egos because they never learned to look at themselves with any criticism.  They never did anything wrong — ever — or if it was wrong it doesn’t matter because it is always society’s fault.

Don’t get me wrong.  “Hating the sin and loving the sinner” is really what parenting is all about.  But NOT engaging in criticism — modeling a way for a child to internalize an awareness and willfulness of their choices — is NEGLECT.  The point is not to make a habit of criticism.  It should not be a reflexive response from your own frustration (which may or may not be justified).  It requires stepping outside a situation.  And that is the best lesson a child can learn when looking at themselves.

At a crucial age in my daughter’s development where she could have “gone either way”, I had a blow-out over disciplining her, and it enabled both of us to forge a renewed understanding of each other where there is more respect for each other (and ourselves) than ever before.  But we both had to look at “what was wrong with us” with honesty, not turning a blind eye to supposedly protect our self-esteem.  Simply saying what we did was bad and not do it again would have been superficial, sweeping it under the rug and into our subconscious to surface or explode another day.

Which is another point: you HAVE TO make your child look at themselves (not just what they are doing) if you fear a pattern of behavior that is holding them back or even hurting them.  The mother counseling her daughter in a way that seemed to “make it her fault” may have been completely what she needed, while in another case it would have been inappropriate and unnecessarily hurtful. 

Mind you, I said UNECESSARILY.  Criticism and discipline hurt, whether it comes from a parent or from the laws of nature (touching a hot stove being the typical example, but we can find examples at any age).  The point is not to HARM by overdoing it.  Wisdom is knowing when to (and when not to) apply a truth, it seems.

But more than any other point, we need to understand self-esteem.  Pop psychology’s big premise, which we have been bombarded with as “common knowledge” since the 70s, has screwed us over with the biggest lies of our time.

Self-esteem isn’t a trophy you can give someone to make them feel better, where everyone is a winner no matter what.  REAL self-esteem comes from being taught there IS such a thing as right and wrong, and that what you do reflects who you are.  It means you have a choice and a chance to go beyond your circumstances and can take credit as well as blame for the consequences of your actions.  It’s the trophy you get when you accomplish something, with or without the praise of others.  YOU EARN IT.

So I guess it’s a really strange thing if you think about it. We as parents can tear it down, but we can’t give it to them.  But we can be encouraging so THEY can build it up.  We can give our children the pieces they need and give them instructions once in a while how to put it together.  Then they can become individuals that can stand on their own two feet, accept responsibility, take criticism, have a sense of shame, and this will build an unshakable self-respect and reflect outwards as respect for others.  That’s TRUE self-esteem.

And that’s what I want for my daughter.  Not an empty, inflated self-esteem from not challenging who they are and can be, but one based on true worth and accountability to oneself and others.