"For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 14:11)
Over the past few years, I've been delighted to discover that much, if not most, well-done research into human conduct meshes nicely with Scripture. One such line of research has been conducted by social scientist Roy Baumeister, who has spent more than a decade investigating the effect of high self esteem on behavior. His findings, summarized in an issue of Scientific American ("Violent Pride," April 2001) illustrate the folly of embracing an idea before checking to determine if it is supported by the Truth of God's Word.
Baumeister has found what Scripture clearly tells us: to wit, high self esteem is not a desirable attribute to anyone except the person in possession of it. It seems people with high self esteem tend to have equally low self control. The more highly a person thinks of himself, the less regard he has for the rights of others and the more likely he is to respond aggressively - verbally and/or physically - to people who disconfirm, in whatever manner, his inflated self-concept. Amazingly enough, Baumeister found that violent criminals, spouse abuser, and gang members - some of societies most dangerous sorts - have high self esteem. So high, in fact, that they qualify as narcissists - people who believe that the rules do not apply to them; that what they want, they deserve to have; and that the ends justify the means. Baumeister's findings go a long way toward explaining why today's children are so much more prone to violent behavior than were children reared before the Age of Let's All Get High on Self Esteem. According to several studies, America's kids are at least five times more aggressive and violence-prone than were children in 1965. But even non-aggressive children display telltale signs of high self esteem: petulance, disrespect, and a lack of proper manners (demonstrations of respect for others). Are America's kids slowly turning into narcissists? One study found that most high school kids have cheated, but the truly scary finding was that most of these teenage cheaters are firmly convinced that what they did was justified by one circumstance or another (e.g., the need to get into the "right" college). Sounds like narcissism to me.
Make no mistake about it, low self esteem isn't good either. People at the low end of the self esteem spectrum are prone to clinical depression, unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide. As is the case with many things, it appears that when it comes to self esteem, moderation is key. High self esteem leads to antisocial behavior. Low self-esteem leads to self-destructive behavior. A person with good self esteem, neither high nor low, possesses equal appreciation of his/her strengths and weaknesses. He respects (loves) his neighbor unconditionally, no more or less than he respects (loves) himself. He rises to challenges, but accepts defeat, regarding it as a necessary learning experience. He is humble, but not self-effacing; modest, but not bland.
Once upon a time not so long ago, adults did not tolerate displays of high self esteem on the part of a child. The child who pushed his way to the front of the line was made to go to the back. The child who attracted attention to himself was rebuked. The child who displayed bad manners or a lack of respect for others was punished. The child who cheated was given a failing grade. Unfortunately, as the definition of misbehavior is dumbed farther and farther down, what was not tolerated forty years ago is all too often overlooked today, or explained away in terms of some feeling the child was experiencing at the time. The same behavior that drew a severe punishment forty years ago draws little more than a "let's do better next time, okay?" talk today. Fifty years ago, a child who tried to explain away his misdeeds was sternly told "there are no excuses." Today, adults even collaborate in making excuse after excuse for the ill-mannered child with poor self control.
Here's a fact: Two entirely different approaches to children will not produce the same outcome. If we want children who mind their manners, who are capable of shame when they do the wrong thing, and who will truly try to do better next time, we're going to have to raise children the way children were raised when most children minded their manners, felt shame when they did the wrong thing, and truly tried to do better next time. To do that, we're going to have to stop parenting according to a lot of books and begin again to parent by The Book. The truth will set you free. It will also make your parenting a whole lot more satisfying and set your children on the road to successful lives.