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Self-Esteem or Self-Validation?   

Br Norman Blumenthal

Published in Inyan Magazine, March 26 2014 

Many years ago, at an early stage of my career, my job entailed screening every kindergarten child in a Hebrew day school. Year after year I would encounter the following: Two or three children whom the teachers would rhapsodically describe as the most precocious and intelligent, but who would invariably turn out to be bright but not exceptional children albeit very verbal and confident. There would also be one or two other children who did not impress the teachers as particularly talented or advanced but who scored higher than most other children on the tests. When I shared the results, the teachers would seem surprised, but then they would recall moments or isolated instances when those “less than stellar” children demonstrated distinct skills or ability but never made the globally positive impression of the others. My conclusion at the time was that the first set of children were inherently bright but had higher selfesteem, allowing them to achieve even beyond their apparent capabilities. I assumed that their parents praised and complimented them, and this positive feedback fostered even more exalted achievement. The inherently more talented but less demonstrative students lacked sufficient selfesteem, I thought, to fully project their skills and therefore appeared less intelligent and were probably less successful. From that and other exposure, I acquired an enduring respect for positive self-esteem. The need to give frequent compliments and to impress on our children their worth and talent became a key consideration in my work as a psychologist and therapist, and I regularly conveyed this message to others with whom I worked. 

Doubts Intrude

Recent observations and studies, however, have cast doubt in my mind on the pre-eminence of high self-esteem as a factor in achieving success. Many educational programs geared to enhance students’ self-esteem have failed to yield the expected results. Particularly striking are comparisons of American and Asian students’ achievement, especially in mathematics. Americans consistently lag behind their Asian counterparts, yet are more likely to have inflated impressions of their own skills. In a recent study, only 6 percent of Korean eighth-graders considered themselves excellent math students, compared with 39 percent of American eighth-graders, but the Korean students scored far better on math tests. Indeed, in recent years many believe that it is the humility and restrained sense of self-importance that may have contributed to the Asian students’ seemingly disproportionate academic success. Their cultural disinclination to feel superior or entitled may have served as a key motivation to succeed. As the Chinese proverb says, “He who is not satisfied with himself will grow.” Our Sages seem to extol both humility and assertiveness (azus d’kedusha). They teach that anivus, humility, is a virtue personified by no less a luminary than Moshe Rabbeinu, not to mention the abundance of images of our Gedolim and leaders who steadfastly shun even hints of tribute and praise. Nevertheless, our Rabbis also teach us that “The bashful person cannot learn” (Pirkei Avos 2:6), and that an element of assertiveness are essential to the indispensable goal of limud Torah. Which, then, is the desirable state? Is elevated self-regard essential to success or does greater humility make the difference? Is it our mandate as parents, educators, spouses and friends to lavish praise on others or to nurture humility and self depreciation? 

Self-Validation

After years of thought and learning from my main teachers — the parents and children who talk openly to me — I have come to believe that a primary function of successful parenting is the transmission of selfvalidation rather than self-esteem. Pinpointing and promoting your child’s endowed strengths and gently identifying and deemphasizing his or her weaknesses seems to have more bearing on their ability to achieve and thrive than gratuitous flattery and compliments. Human beings are not born with a sense of self. If people were fed and clothed but deprived of meaningful interactions with others, they would have no sense of who they are. Even adults are often surprised when they discover unknown or rarely revealed aspects of themselves. Without being too simplistic, who has not been taken aback when he hears his own voice that has been recorded or videoed? Who has not at least partially recoiled when he sees himself in those three-way mirrors in clothing stores? A realistic and wholesome sense of who we are evolves through interaction with others. Parents who are in tune with their child and reinforce an awareness of his or her unique strengths and weaknesses, especially in his early years, nurtures a positive sense of self and worth. For example, a mother who responds favorably to the bright child’s insights and skills helps that child accept and appreciate his precocity. Similarly, a father who encourages and supports a musically gifted child helps her to know that about herself and to develop this skill further. Telling a clumsy child that he is a great athlete or the child with a tin ear that she is musical will adversely affect their potential selfesteem by setting him or her up for repeated frustration and failure. True self-esteem will be based initially on adult insight and understanding of one’s child, student or friend. Discerning the individual’s talents and abilities is essential to building that person’s sense of self-worth. The parent, teacher or mentor must then nurture and enhance those capabilities not only by encouraging and supporting the youngster’s pursuits but by actively identifying and embracing who the young person is and what he or she is capable of. This is often referred to as validation and self-validation, i.e., confirming what you know about the person and ultimately what the person knows about himself.

Lack of Skills or Talents

It is equally the parent’s or educator’s job to discourage or steer the individual away from that which is not within his or her skill set. This can be particularly difficult for a parent who may be, for whatever reasons, invested in a child’s accomplishment or acclaim. Such a parent may want the child to achieve in areas that he or she was precluded from, or may hope to preserve a family tradition of achievement and success in a specific occupation or pursuit. If the child is suited for such ambition, self-esteem is enhanced by its encouragement. If the child does not have the inherent capacity or the desire to fulfill the parent’s hopes and dreams, the child’s self-esteem can be enhanced by discouraging him or her from that pursuit. Let’s imagine a man named Yaakov, whose family has always learned in a yeshivah known for its rigorous level of Talmudic study. Yaakov wants his only son to follow in that path. The boy is an obedient and consistently observant child but he doesn’t possess the high intellect or focus needed for such intensive Torah learning. Yaakov hires tutors, demands extra hours of study and through family connections gets the boy accepted into his yeshivah of choice, where he struggles and feels degraded throughout his years of attendance. Then imagine a girl named Sara whose verbal precocity was apparent practically from infancy. An alert and focused baby, she began talking at six months and by age four was reading whole sentences. In first grade she was writing stories and poetry. Neither parent possessed such talent but they saw to it that Sara was exposed to fine literature and writing-enhancement programs. Sarah’s subsequent acclaim as a writer is attributable to their recognition and promotion of her skills. Some parents never received sufficient validation for those areas in which they themselves could optimally have functioned and succeeded. It is not surprising that these parents are more likely to repeat the pattern and fail to accurately discern and promote their children’s abilities. Such parents need to double their efforts to study and know their children in order to identify areas of proficiency and nurture them.

A Big World

Part and parcel of enhancing selfesteem through self-validation is the recognition that our community is a large and potentially diverse one with room for people with a variety of talents, strengths and potential contributions. We all too often wear blinders and believe that there are only one or two acceptable paths in life and woe unto him or her whose inherent and Divinely bestowed skill set doesn’t fit those narrow choices. The pressure to fit in, appear worthy, and (lest we forget!) get the best shidduch, compel too many parents to force their children into a mitas Sedom (or a Procrustean bed) consisting of those few, restricted life pursuits that are currently and locally admired or accepted. We will raise better accomplished and happier sons and daughters when we broaden our vision to include the variety of skills and talents that our children naturally possess. 

Confident Children

Those kindergarten children who initially appeared to their teachers so talented and precocious were probably blessed with parents attuned to their skills and appropriately nurtured them. It wasn’t just their innate capacities that helped them develop into successful students but an environment that embraced their strengths and provided optimal opportunities for the maximal development of these abilities. Had their parents not recognized those abilities, had they instead attempted to foster skills that were not there, these children would not have exhibited such pride and confidence.

A Fish Can’t Climb a Tree 

Albert Einstein, the figure most associated with mental acuity in the Western world, is said to have asserted that “everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Every child is gifted and Divinely ordained to enhance this world. It is our job as parents and educators to discern those gifts and facilitate their growth so that the child will become a productive adult, proud of his endowments and ability to succeed in his life goals. 

Dr. Blumenthal is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Cedarhurst, NY. He is also director of trauma bereavement and crisis intervention at OHEL Children’s & Family Services, and an educational director at the university level. 

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