Self-Esteem – What All Parents Can Learn from the College Scandal

Self Esteem

Self-Esteem – What All Parents Can Learn from the College Scandal

Struggles, setbacks and disappointment are part of life but how your child learns and responds to the experience can either contribute to low self-esteem or be an opportunity for growth.

Shock, disbelief, questions, opinions and judgments flourish in the latest news about wealthy parents who bribed test proctors and college coaches to get their children into top tier schools.  Since the scandal broke, the public has used social media to ridicule and condemn these parents who showed no integrity or fairness in trying to further their child’s education.  However, the true damage goes far beyond the legal implications and the publics’ criticism.  What message is internalized by a child, even into adulthood, when a parent takes steps to do something the child cannot do on their own?  Could the effect last a lifetime, cause emotional distress and lead someone down a path of self-destruction?

Much of what we do sends a message to our children.  Some of these messages are explicit, others are implied.  Using money to tilt the admission’s process in your child’s favor says to your child, “Let me help you because you are not good enough”.  Outraged parents have been quick to judge and steadfast in proclaiming that they would never do such a thing.  But the line between enabling and supporting our child is not always so bright.  To some degree, we are all guilty of trying to solve our child’s problems or helping them to make consequences go away.  No you say?  Have you ever rushed back to school to take your child their forgotten backpack, homework, team uniform or after school change of clothes?  Have you ever assisted your child with completing a school project and provided a little too much assistance.  A friend of mine told me about an experience she had last week.  Her story went something like this:

My child was asked to create a “WANTED” poster about a recent book he read.  The night before it was due my child sat down to color the poster.  When I saw the poster I knew that he had spent very little time on it.  The picture of the main character resembled more of a stick figure and the writing was written in pencil and hardly legible.  I took out my phone and searched for images of “wanted posters” so I could show my son what his poster should look like.  I then took out another piece of poster board and began telling my child what he should place at the top and bottom of the poster.  I wasn’t going to do his poster for him but I thought that in order for him to get a good grade on the project his poster should look more like an actual “wanted poster”.

My child turned to me and said, “Mom, why are you trying to change what I did?  It’s my project.”  When I explained to him that I just wanted him to get a good grade on the project he responded by saying, “you are always trying to tell me how to do my projects instead of just letting me do it myself.  What’s wrong with what I did?”  I felt awful.  I had only been trying to help my child yet what I was doing was actually sending my child a completely different message.  My attempt at helping was being received by my child as me being displeased with what he had done.  My child heard me say, “You didn’t do a good job and so I am going to help you do it right.”  It is definitely not the message I intended to send.

I responded by telling my child that if he had done his very best and was happy with turning his project in as it was, then I was happy too.  Then I went upstairs and let him finish his project himself.

I asked my friend whether her child had left the poster as it was or revised it.  I wasn’t surprised to hear that while he had used the new poster board to redo his assignment, it was an improved version of what he had previously done rather than the version his mom had wanted him to do.

It is natural for parents to want to help their children, especially when it involves overcoming challenges or difficulties.  However, sometimes our desire to help our children prevents them from learning how to work through their own problems, from experiencing and overcoming disappointments, and more importantly, from learning resiliency.  Disappointment is not a pleasant emotion but it is an inevitable part of life and it is important in your child’s emotional, intellectual and social development.  Children who do not learn how to deal with small setbacks have a much more difficult time when faced with larger ones.  How our children learns and responds to disappointment will determine its impact in their adult life.

So how do your support your child without enabling him or her? 

  • Assist a child to set goals, take risks, and apply effort. Take the outcome as feedback in order to make adjustments.
  • Provide emotional support, validate feelings of anxiety, frustration, and disappointment. Encourage them to find the lesson beyond the outcome. Acknowledgement of feelings will bring more respect than solving the problem for them.
  • Emphasize their strengths and challenge them to persist despite setbacks.

In school you get the lesson and then take the test. Life is opposite, you get the test and then you get the lesson.  Help your child figure out the lesson.  Struggles, setbacks and disappointment are part of life but how your child learns and responds to the experience can either contribute to low self-esteem or be an opportunity for growth.  The parents in this example failed the test but we can all learn from the lesson.