catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 6 :: 2006.03.24 — 2006.04.07


Let your child be?

Most parents resort to using superlatives at the proverbial drop of a hat. "You're great. The next Albert Einstein, 'King' Pele, Margaret Atwood, or Bill Gates," as the case may be. Or, it could just be the reverse, something parents often indulge in—to save time. Like helping your kid get ready to go to school, or putting the blame on the teacher when your child gets a bad grade.

This is not all. You, as a parent, may be so worried about your child's self-esteem that you're careful. You do not say anything negative, so that it does not hurt your child's sensibilities. You cannot, after all, do away with your own sense of great expectations—expectations that you may have set for yourself vis-a-vis your child, when s/he grows up, and comes of age.

Self-esteem champions, and apostles of the human potential movement, would not agree, in principle, on the modicum of thought expressed in the preceding part of this write-up. And, for very obvious reasons. Have these protagonists not told us to preach that children should be told over and over again how wonderful they are, and to write down things that make every child special? One of their exercises even tells children to close their eyes and imagine that they are perfect. Proponents also say that parents have to boost the self-esteem of a child so that achievements soar. Teach self-esteem and youth won't be tempted to pop drugs is another pointer. Books on the subject also proclaim: "Self-esteem can save lives."

The self-esteem movement, with its myriad garbs, has found its way into educational curricula, and entire schools, not to speak of parent-training programs and parenting books. Wherever you turn these days, adults, organizers and their sponsors, are passing out stars, stickers and trophies to children for not doing much more than showing up. What's more, critics of the self-esteem brigade think that you are doing a disservice, and pampering children far too much. As a behavioral analyst put it, "You can't have self-esteem in the abstract. It is meaningless to say, 'I am a great person,' without having to go through the steps of who you are, what you stand for, and what you are able to do."

This new voice, against an old practice, is not hogwash or hype. It is an emerging field of thought, which says that teaching 'pure' self-esteem isn't a waste of time, and resources: a dangerous distraction from the truly vital tasks of building knowledge, skills, and character. These analysts also say that schools should foster social and moral development as well as intellectual growth. Children, they contend, thrive when expression and achievement are present. Furthermore, they aver, children should be treated as inherently capable, and purposeful beings, who want to be engaged in the world around them. Because they acquire a sense of significance from doing significant things? Yes, indeed!

New analysts also agree that a positive self-concept is important, although they emphasize that it cannot be divorced from accomplishment, or a healthy relationship with others. So, what is essentially the bottom line of this novel pathway of thinking? Making achievement count, and dispensing with empty praise—to build self-esteem. This does not mean that many parents do not operate on the principle that they can't praise a child too highly, when s/he achieves great things. The new theory only underlines a sound precept: praise showered excessively or disconnectedly can lead to distrust of adults, and a gnawing sense of self-doubt in children.

Here is an example, courtesy of US-based educationist, William Damon, whose admirable work has influenced this article:

A kid comes home saying he wasn't selected for the baseball team. His father says, "Well, they're out of their minds. You are the best player around…" Now, someone is lying. The kid quickly figures out that his dad was saying that just to be nice. Then, he thinks back to that paper he did last week that dad said he liked, and he wonders: "Was it any good?"

Adds a child psychologist: "It is not a question of self-esteem and academic achievement. Both are important. And, before you focus on either one of them, children have to feel good about themselves." Food for thought, really, because how often have we seen adults with PhDs, MBAs etc., who hate themselves within or without their fields of specialization, or activity? Go figure…in your own neighborhood, and beyond.


At the same time, it isn't so simple. One need not search the horizon, or every home, to find out the raison d'etre of parental expectations. Commonplace examples tell us that children whose parents are doctors have it all worked out, willy-nilly, in their minds. Most of them follow a pattern: emulating their parents' examples, and fulfilling their "dreams." Be that as it may, many parents, in the troubled times we now live in, seem to have developed a realistic outlook, thanks to several modalities involved in pursuing such fancies. A majority of today's parents would want their children to respect them, because they ought to, not because they wish to. That, indeed, is a great expectation—more so, because of the generation gap that exists between parents and children in this Age of the Infobahn. Says a Mumbai-based clinical pathologist, and father of two children:

Children are not scared of their parents, unlike in the past. We, as children, never for once questioned our parents directly. Now, they do. They often ask us things like: why this, why not that? Maybe, the change has been for our own good. But, it becomes, at times, difficult for us to accept some things, thanks to our mindset…. We never had these privileges: of discussing things with our parents. Our children do. But, the idea is not without flaw. Children have become aggressive; they often think they can get away with it, at home, school, or elsewhere. More important: aggression can always boomerang on its proponent. You never know.

Most parents expect children to do well in their studies, like all well-meaning parents. As one father put it: "I would be pleased if my kids took up a career in pathology, or chemistry—their mother's profession." Many parents also expect children to be disciplined and work hard in their studies. Some don't. As one parent contends that he has no high expectations. "I expect good effort, all right, but I do not want to burden them with my own brand of expectations. That would be wrong. I am sure every parent would know that." He adds: "We, as parents, have got to take into consideration our children's aptitude, skill, or capacity, in effect. We should allow them to be what they are, or what they wish to be…. Also, the use of force is illogical. You can't use a stick to shape your child's career, or future."


Says a housewife: "It is a fallacy to blame parents for things that have gone wrong." She has her reasons. "Parents have a difficult, complex role." But, she admits: "We've lost sight of what is good for kids. We've made them self-centered and self-absorbed, because of our own expectations. We sometimes expect too much from our children." A bright executive conjures up a roadmap, which could take us away from this conundrum, saying, "We have to guide children towards achievement. It requires patience. We have to be positive too. If a child is working towards something and people tell her/him s/he is capable of it, the child won't ask for a new pair of Reebok shoes."

Not all parents are so practical. And, all of us know that for a host of reasons. How often have we come across stories in our own vicinity, or by way of newspaper reports, of parental pressure, even "cruelty" of parents who "terrorize" kids with their high dose of expectations? We have also witnessed the plight of children who have run away from home, attempted or committed suicide, or taken to the wrong side of good living, even crime, as a spin-off of such compunctions, or compulsions. Child-abuse is as old as the hills, all right; but, it seems to have reached alarming proportions, thanks to intense competition, by way of academic statistics, not necessarily merit, in a madly competitive world.

What's more, parents have also become too "self-centered." As Damon observes:

In this era where both parents need to work, parents don't get much time to be with their kids. So kids baby-sit with their TVs. When they return home, from school, parents often ask them to cool it out again. In front of the TV set. They sit in relative comfort and snack. Nowhere in that child's day is there anything that has seriously built a skill. And, doubly cursed are the poor, because their economic difficulties are compounded by a lax upbringing.

Children need self-esteem, yes, but that self-esteem should be a result, not cause of self-development. Because, real self-esteem comes out of achievement, being responsible, helpful. Children are competent, curious, and like to interact. They can handle a bit of frustration. Avers Damon: "We have got to cajole families that do not enlist their children's help at home, to prepare dinner, wash the plates, or work in a social cause: collect funds for poor patients."


Performing serious service, psychologists note, confers a sense of personal competence and social responsibility in children. They are virtues that are central to the child's character development. In reality, however, young children are discouraged from developing their own splendid natural aptitudes for character and competence to their fullest capabilities. As Hugh and Gayle Prather once observed:

Merely getting kids under control does not increase their awareness… Focusing on changing behavior is like telling little kids which direction the bumper cars are supposed to circle, but not how to drive one. First, you have to 'put them in the driver's seat' [take them step-by-step], and move it around for them.

It goes without saying that parents have to impose consequences for immoral behavior. Children, after all, learn right from wrong out of habit, and from behavior that imitates what they see us do. There's nothing wrong if the child does not have a moral bone, as Damon observes. Because, when you're not happy, things aren't as much fun. And, the child is unhappy too.


Yes, the gauntlet is on parents, school administrators, and teachers. They have to set higher standards, inspire, and nurture spiritual interests, or creativity, and social commitment from children. And, yes, shower praise, or give a pat on [y]our child's back, only after s/he has achieved something—not before. This will go a long way in the fruition of a beautiful relationship between a parent and child—a truly new way to happiness.

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