Apparently, the best psycho professionals are having second thoughts about self-esteem. They have discovered, Lisa Damour reports, that high self-esteem, the kind that comes from being coddled and helicoptered, the kind that makes you feel that you have never done anything wrong, produces dysfunctional and unhappy adults.
Damour is too polite to call it self-esteemism, but the term fits a what happened when she caught one of her students plagiarizing a paper.
Shortly after she confronted the student plagiarist, Damour found herself on the phone with the girl’s father. His message: if any harm befell his daughter he would take legal action.
This anecdote tells us that self-esteemism is not merely the province of schoolteachers. Parents are heavily involved in this mindlessly hyper-protective behavior.
Often the parents who coddle their children are those who have the power to do so.
Of course, people who hold economic and social power enjoy more opportunities than most to operate around the rules: to bully coaches into a lineup change, to buy their way into a school, to help secure an undeserved job. But “exceptionalism” – my term for the belief that rules or conventions are to be observed only when convenient – is not limited strictly to the wealthy or influential. All parents share the instinct to protect their children, and a subset of parents in every tax bracket can be found exercising any leverage they have to have exceptions made on behalf of their children.
Keep in mind, if you child is never allowed to fail, he will never learn how to compete in the free market. If he is never allowed to suffer the consequences of bad behavior, he risks becoming a pathological narcissist.
Self-esteemism produces a class of entitled aristocrats who have no use for the workings of the marketplace.
I find it heartening to see that psycho professionals are coming to realize that parents who want to ensure their children the best chances for future success and happiness should work to build character.
Unfortunately, Damour does not call character-building by its name. She mislabels it as “conscientiousness.”
One is inclined to forgive her and her profession’s conceptual lapse. Psycho professionals are not very strong on concepts.
Someone who is conscientious is meticulous and careful in fulfilling any task. In that sense, conscientiousness is a quality that contributes to good character.
Yet, conscientiousness also means following the dictates of conscience, and in that sense the term is inapposite. Learning how to follow your conscience is not the same as what Damour prescribes: learning how to follow the rules.
It turns out that adult happiness doesn’t arise from parents bending the rules to a child’s advantage; it comes from children learning the rules and conforming to them.
Don’t follow your bliss; follow the rules.
Damour identifies othere qualities that make for good character:
Children who are industrious, orderly and have good self-control are more likely than their careless or undisciplined peers to grow into happy adults.
All classical books on ethics would offer the same prescriptions. They would call it character-building, not conscientiousness.
If we ignore the word, we see that psychologists have grasped the essential point.
Damour describes the current state of the research:
As with many findings in academic psychology, the connection between childhood conscientiousness and adult well-being simply proves common sense. Conscientious people enjoy better health as adults because they chose long-term payoffs over short-term gratifications. Most conscientious people would prefer a cheeseburger to a trip to the gym, but they know that – genetic factors aside – heart disease doesn’t care who your parents are.
In their relationships, conscientious people are unlikely to lie and cheat or, presumably, put up with that behavior in their friends and lovers. When it comes to having a feeling of mastery in one’s endeavors – whether one chooses to be a homemaker or a homebuilder – conscientious people come out ahead because they do good work even when no one is looking.
The last is one of the great principles of classical ethics. If I recall correctly, it goes back as far as Confucius. It says that a person of character does the right thing even when no one is looking. Thereby, doing the right thing becomes a good habit.
I also find it heartening that Damour emphasizes following rules over feeling empathy. Hers is a vision of human development that helps children to learn how to play the game of life, not to teach them to feel everyone’s pain.