A middle school girl I worked with finally found the courage to tell me her deepest fear. Her body was so tense, it was practically vibrating.
“What if I grow up to be ordinary?” she said.
The fear this child expressed—that she may not be that special—is one that I see often in my work as a therapist. Somehow this girl, and many other clients I’ve seen, equated self-worth with being impressive.
I frequently hear from parents that their kids struggle with low self-esteem. Their children might seem outwardly confident, but they are suffering because of their unrelenting preoccupation with judging themselves. Parents worry when they see their children crying over a less-than-perfect grade, fretting that something they said might seem weird, franticly avoiding any situation where they might not instantly excel, or viciously criticizing themselves when they fall short in some way.
These parents are picking up on the vulnerability of their children’s self-worth—what researcher Jennifer Crocker and her colleagues refer to as “contingent self-esteem.” These kids have gotten onto an endless treadmill of constantly having to prove their worth through accomplishments or other signs of external approval. This makes children terribly vulnerable. If they struggle to learn something, make a mistake, experience a setback, or just encounter someone who performs better than they do, they feel hopelessly flawed.
Cultural messages that kids absorb about having to be great at everything and look good doing it compound the pressure to perform. When children inevitably fall short of perfection, they may feel crushed by shame and either give up or push themselves so hard that they find no joy in their lives. Trying to be “amazing” can lead to them to seek applause or hide flaws rather than acting with integrity and authenticity. Their self-esteem is fragile, built on a shaky base of self-focus and self-promotion.
How can we help these kids?
Parents often respond to their self-doubting children by trying to reassure them that they’re wonderful. In the not-too-distant past, many psychologists recommended building up a child’s self-esteem through praise. But we’ve since learned that this method can backfire. Research by Eddie Brummelman and his colleagues shows that not only does lavish praise about how great they are not make kids with low self-esteem feel better about themselves, it can actually lead to even lower self-esteem over time and less willingness to take on difficult tasks.
Luckily, there is a better approach to self-esteem. In my new book, Kid Confidence, I explain that the key to fostering healthy self-esteem isn’t to try to convince children that they’re great. Instead, we should help them soften harsh self-judgment by connecting with something bigger than themselves. It may seem counterintuitive, but—rather than more self-love—the answer for self-critical kids is to reduce self-focus by developing a “quiet ego.”
A quiet ego, according to psychologist Heidi Wayment and her colleagues, is a state of being in which “the volume of the ego is turned down so that it might listen to others as well as the self in an effort to approach life more humanely and compassionately.” Turning off self-focus enough gives kids some breathing room to grow. It doesn’t involve putting oneself down, which is a form of self-focus. Rather, it’s a kind of forgetting of the self by recognizing that we are just a tiny piece of the larger universe, and definitely not the center of it!
While some experts believe that children are too immature or naturally self-focused to develop a quiet ego, I disagree. Think of the last time you saw your child belly-laugh with a friend or become engrossed in a project (maybe so much that they didn’t hear you when you called them to dinner!). These kinds of experiences give kids a taste of what it’s like to be un-self-conscious. As parents, we can help them expand on that, so that it’s easier to let go of constant self-evaluation.
A quiet ego is aspirational—not something we can maintain at all times. But the more we experience it, the better we get at finding it. Here are some examples of quiet ego states that you can help your child learn to cultivate.
Mindfulness—a focus on the present moment without judgment. Developing mindfulness—through meditation or other practices—can be useful in quieting noisy self-focus. Several studies have found that children as young as preschool age who take school-based mindfulness meditation programs can decrease their stress and aggression and improve their cognitive performance. If a program like that isn’t offered in your schools, there are many online resources with ideas about how to create more mindfulness in your children’s lives. Parents can also role-model more mindfulness themselves, to inspire their kids.
Flow—a state of being completely immersed in a project or learning experience that challenges us. You may observe your child immersed in flow while building Legos, drawing, reading a favorite book, swimming, shooting baskets, or studying bugs. Flow happens when kids are so engaged in an activity that they lose track of time and are utterly un-self-conscious. By encouraging children to engage in these kinds of activities that absorb their attention completely, you can help expand their wonderful feeling of flow, where time stands still. Studies have shown that flow can benefit school-aged students, which has led more educators to consider ways of incorporating flow in the classroom.
Compassion—a concern for those who are suffering coupled with the desire to help. Adults often feel compassion when they see others suffering. But did you know that many kids—even as young as three years old—do, too? To help build on these instincts, parents can role-model compassionate action in their own lives by how they respond to the suffering of others. Children can also learn about compassion through caring about their friends’ well-being or by getting involved in volunteer work in their school or community. Compassion allows children to quiet self-focus through genuine caring for others.
Elevation—an emotion triggered by observing acts of courage, extreme generosity, or virtue. We feel the upswell of elevation when we witness deep goodness in others. Elevation pulls us out of ourselves and makes us feel optimistic about the human race. It also motivates us to care about others, possibly by activating both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Although much of the research on elevation involves adults, it can be cultivated in kids, too. This may be why so many children’s books try to focus on the inspiring heroes from our history. However, some research suggests that focusing on less extreme exemplars (such as a grandparent who survived adversity or a parent who, faced with temptation, made a difficult but ethical choice) may be even more effective at encouraging kids to act morally themselves.
Awe—a feeling of wonder and amazement that comes in the presence of something bigger than ourselves. Awe can be triggered by a vast panoramic view of nature, an exquisite piece of art or music, or a profound spiritual experience. It directs our attention away from ourselves and toward our environment in an expansive way that can also lead us to be kinder and more generous. While much awe research has been done with adults, children might also catch a taste of awe by watching the sunset, seeing animals in the wild, or gazing at the stars at night.
Instead of trying to increase self-esteem in our kids by promoting high self-regard, we can help our kids find ways to move past self-focus. Introducing more mindfulness, flow, compassion, elevation, and awe into their lives will help them develop a quiet(er) ego—something that will serve them well in their childhood and beyond. When children can ease away from constant self-evaluation, they’re freer to empathize with others, engage in learning, and identify with values that are important to them. Being able to let go of the question “Am I good enough?” opens children up to creating a fuller, richer life.