Handing out reality checks

by Marc Wilson / 24 January, 2013
You can enhance your children’s prospects without turning them into future dictators.
Spirit of Adventure
Spirit of Adventure, photo/supplied

According to America’s Fox News (which appears to be some kind of 24-hour political comedy channel), “We are raising a generation of deluded narcissists.”

I don’t usually pay much attention to Fox, but sadly it appears to be right – research shows today’s young adults are more narcissistic than their predecessors of 30 years ago. Even in New Zealand.

One of the suggested culprits is the self-esteem bandwagon that gathered steam in the 1970s and 1980s. Although self-esteem (feeling positive about yourself) is not the same thing as narcissism (pathological self-involvement), it’s quite easy to cultivate narcissism when you think you’re encouraging self-esteem. Sorry, but dressing your child in “Little Prince” T-shirts, and telling him he can be anything he wants to be may not have the results you expect.

In fact, even if we get it right, promoting self-esteem is not a win-win situation. High self-esteem has a range of psychological, social and even physical effects, but it can also have a less-Supermanly underside. From others’ point of view, feeling good about yourself can be difficult to disentangle from narcissism, and it’s not uncommon for people with high self-esteem to be seen as arrogant. But it’s not just about how others see us; there’s also some psychological baggage that goes along with having high self-esteem.

In some people, high self-esteem and aggression have been linked. Narcissistic people tend to appear high in self-esteem, but it’s a kind of fragile self-esteem that is easily threatened, and when that happens aggression can follow.

Someone who has helped us understand the perils of self-esteem is Jackie Hunter, of the University of Otago. He and others have also shown that high self-esteem can manifest itself as prejudice – holding attitudes and beliefs that favour the groups with which you identify, and devaluing ones that you don’t. Just like narcissists, people with high self-esteem can overreact to perceived threats to their group with discriminatory behaviour.

And the upsides? High self-esteem is associated with greater willingness to grasp opportunities, take the initiative – if you feel good about yourself, it’s easier to rock up to someone you’ve never met and make friends. Feeling that we’re capable and worthwhile people can also act as extra fuel to get us through when we need it, so when times get tough, we’ll recover more successfully.

So, we know high self-esteem has both benefits and downsides. Like me, you want your kids to have those benefits without enhancing their prospects as future dictators. How do you do it?

In his research, Hunter has noted it may be the way you promote self-esteem that’s important in making sure the pros outweigh the cons. He has spent years studying young people who take part in the Spirit of Adventure sailing programme, and he’s pretty sure that this kind of thing does the trick. Outdoor interventions have long shown strong self-esteem-improving effects. The Spirit of Adventure gives young people lots of chances to show themselves that they’re capable and worthwhile, rather than just telling them they are.

And the research shows the positive effects continue after the voyage ends – and without the downsides. So, we need to provide opportunities for our kids to test themselves (without dying) in developing their competence. The thing about being told you’re the bee’s knees is that when you get around to testing how great you really are, you might not have the goods, and that can result in feeling threatened. On the other hand, developing the skills means you can live up to your own press.

Ironically, the bloke responsible for a lot of narcissism-aggression research is Roy Baumeister, who is a serious overachiever himself, with a squillion journal papers and whatnot. Bet he has high self-esteem.
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