Something is happening. After an entire generation of parents and teachers have worked hard to improve their children’s self-esteem, the level of depression in young people has skyrocketed. And according to Martin Seligman, PhD (a researcher who has spent his lifetime studying depression and ways out of it), the two are intimately linked.
In his book, The Optimistic Child, Seligman writes, “By emphasizing how a child feels at the expense of what the child does — mastery, persistence, overcoming frustration and boredom, and meeting challenge — parents and teachers are making this generation of children more vulnerable to depression.” And he’s got a lot of research to back him up.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve a child’s self-esteem. Feeling good about yourself is healthy and valuable. But the way you improve self-esteem makes a big difference. When it is done with compliments, even if children feel better about themselves, they will be more vulnerable to depression when they hit one of life’s inevitable setbacks. They may feel good about themselves, but if they are weak and incompetent, life will eventually take them down.
On the other hand, if we try to improve our children’s self-esteem by helping them learn to overcome barriers and to persist in the face of frustration, if we help them learn to tolerate discomfort long enough to succeed at something, we’ve given them real and valuable abilities. Their confidence and belief in themselves will be based in reality, not merely in what people have told them. It’s a confidence that cannot easily be shaken.
This way of building a child’s self-esteem is harder on the adult and it’s harder on the child — in the short run. It’s quicker and easier to just say nice things. But in the long run, a sense of competence will do more for a child than any nice things you could tell them. Actions speak louder than words. The child’s own actions and the response they get from the world speak louder than any words, no matter how pretty. Let’s give our children something real: competence. And from that competence, they will have a self-confidence that renders them immune to depression. The gift of mastery has no equal.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.