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Happiness, Self-Esteem, and Amy Chua

I went to the optometrist a couple years ago and we were talking about our children. After talking about how challenging it was to raise her two sons, she sighed and said, "Well, its all about what's most important - making sure they're happy". I felt like vomiting. Somewhere along the way, many parents have come to believe their children's happiness is their responsibility. I love this recent article about the phenomenon and the key term in Lori Gottlieb's piece is generational narcissism. We have a generation of children obsessed about their own happiness. And they are a product of our parenting.

What drives me crazy is well-meaning Christian parents have totally bought into this. It as if personal happiness is a right that parents are placed to guarantee for their children. Happiness is somehow some kind of godly virtue. Unfortunately, parents' pursuit of their children's happiness is a Christian heresy. There is nothing biblical about it. I recall Crawford Lorrits saying happiness is a by-product of doing what is right. It is a by-product of faith in a God who loved us and Himself up for us.

If someone told me my parents are responsible for my happiness, even as a child, I would have laughed at them. Certainly they loved me and make sacrifices on my behalf. But that has nothing to do with happiness. Like much of the baby boomer generation, I don't think they had any illusion they could make us happy. They certainly did not believe their own parents could make them happy.

Its the same kind of movement with self-esteem. Because of the distant, critical parenting style of many a boomer, their children (who are the parents of young children today) have over-compensated by working to preserve and build up self-esteem at all costs. We guard our kids from failure, from comparison, from obligation, from evaluation (tests), and from discipline. Its ridiculous.

This is where I agree (in part) with Amy Chua. In her Tiger Mom book, she says self-esteem comes from accomplishing something. She pushes her kids to accomplish by evaluating, critiquing, and judging their performance. She may occasionally insult them to push them to succeed. What she is clear on is that self-esteem is not damaged by pressure or judgment, just the opposite. I'm not exactly sure what self-esteem is - its not really biblical idea nor can I think of a biblical equivalent. The closest thing I can come up with is a sense of worth.

One tenet of the self-esteem movement is that we must protect our kids' fragile self-esteem from anything that might them feel bad - choosing up sports teams, excluding people, evaluations and testing, etc. My conclusion is that when someone's feelings get hurt, it is not a tragedy but could be a valuable growing experience. Most self-esteem advocates would disagree. I remember doing an activity for Project Cornerstone (a self-esteem program) in my first grade son's classroom. The purpose of the exercise was to learn how to deal with insults. I thought of some insults that were somewhat cruel - like for a small kid, making fun of his/her stature, etc. But my rationale is that it would be better to deal with realistic insults in a safe environment than have nonsensical insults that have no bearing with reality. The teacher would have none of it. She intentionally gave the appropriate insults to a kid for whom it would make no sense - like giving the big kid the insult about being too small.

Maybe my insults were too cruel for first graders and it certainly would have made some of them feel bad. are we really doing them a favor by protecting them from reality? Doesn't it make more sense to do something more realistic in a safe environment. I'm not exactly sure. What I am certain of is that having a subjective, internal basis for worth (looking in the mirror and telling yourself how great you are) either makes you narcissistic and entitled or pisses you off and makes you even more depressed. Our personal worth must be based on something external and objective. That way it is not easily threatened when our feelings are hurt, which is inevitable and not something to work at avoiding.

So where I am now as a parent is that I push my kids to succeed. I'm not that intense about it but I do evaluate how our kids perform and I do set expectations for what I expect of them. Like Amy Chua, pushing my kids to succeed is an expression of love for them. But where I differ from Chua is 1) its not that important how they perform because 2) I want them to have a sense of worth based on the grace of God in Christ and not in their inherent value as a person (self-esteem movement) or what they accomplish. If my children are happy, that's great. If they're not, that saddens me but its not actually a goal I set for our kids. I can provide opportunities for their happiness but ultimately it is their choice.


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