Where We Go Wrong: Building Self Esteem That Really Matters

Mark H. Lipof, LICSW
July 2010

In my work as a camp counselor and director, real "self esteem" has always been at the heart of most issues that arise. My point is that issues that arise in life, relationships, work, and even play are, at their very center, a reflection of how we see ourselves. Now, this is not a new thought. It is, however, a most important tool that may be used to measure the depth of most problems that arise in our lives, and certainly in our lives as part of a camp community.

When understood by individuals, self esteem can be the catalyst to living life to the fullest and growing beyond what we ever believed possible. In the past twenty or so years, we have been watering down the self esteem of children by putting them in a bubble, removing the very situations in life that truly build their positive, real sense of who they are and what they can become someday — giving them what I call a "False Self Esteem."

One of the greatest gifts human beings are given is free will — self determination. Without free will, we are merely puppets who can never appreciate success or learn from failure. The moments from which we learn the best and the most are those "ah-ha" moments in life where we begin to believe in our own abilities by engaging in and living through experiences.

The Webster's Dictionary states that self esteem is "a confidence and satisfaction in oneself." Others have said it is knowing you have value and feeling good about yourself. If it were only that easy!

Without a graduate school course on child development, it is safe to say most child development theorists agree that an individual forms his or her sense of self during the first three years of life. Experiences in life thereafter occur and we deal with them using that same psychological core we formed earlier in life. This is not to say that life's lessons aren't important. In fact, I believe that the experiences we have in the first twenty-five years of life solidify who we will become as adults. My anecdotal experience with children has shown me again and again that the personality, and more importantly, the character of a person, does not seem to change from about age five on. I have often been astounded to see an eighteen-year-old who I have known since he was seven grow into the strong, decent individual at twenty that I saw him to be when he was younger.

My grandfather used to say "one heart feels another." What I have come to understand is that people can sense goodness in each other, and most of us look for that at a young age. Unfortunately, we grow older, and many of us lose the ability to find the good in others or ourselves as life's events happen to us. Inevitably, our sense of self can be trampled by the many failures, perceived or otherwise, that we experience as adolescents and adults. Our coping mechanisms are learned and usually serve to protect the ego and superego that we formed so long before. I see this often with family, friends, colleagues, campers, and staff members — and that's when I want to scream . . . It's self esteem, stupid! It isn't that we don't succeed; it is that we internalize our failures and allow them to become ingrained in our sense of self. We need to allow children and staff to push through the more difficult experiences and come out stronger on the other side.

Of course, we should not forget our successes either. They serve to teach us even more about who we are and what we may become. In an article, Idie Benjamin (2008) stated that:

A person has self esteem if they know they have value. It is having the confidence to explore, grow, and change. It is the ability to be generous, understanding, and compassionate. You have self esteem because you know these things about yourself, not because someone told you so. Self esteem does not make you successful. Self esteem is the result of achievement. You are successful and then you feel good about yourself.

I would add that those successes need to be real and not imagined.

Who we are at the beginning of life is what we spend the rest of our lives building on. The help or harm we get along the way from our parents, teachers, camp counselors, coaches, friends, and even enemies combines to develop a sense of self and our place in the world. For those of us who work with children, everything we do either builds up or breaks down their fragile sense of self. I believe that many in the past thirty years have failed in their implementation of these concepts in working with children, albeit with the best of intentions.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, there was a trend away from the 1950s idea that children should be seen and not heard. Many believed adults were stifling children and getting in the way of their having positive self esteem. But in fact, I believe children learn some very important lessons from listening and knowing what their place is and when to be heard. Now before I am accused of wanting to go back to the 1950s, I will say that my self esteem was built over time and I learned from my parents that my opinion was important and relevant, but that there was a time and a place for me to give it and it should be based on experience. As I got older, I would earn a place in adulthood, it would not just be handed to me because I showed up! This strengthened my sense of self esteem in a positive way. I was proud to be living up to the expectations that I understood. The problem is that so often today we don't set that kind of bar for children.

In the late 1970s, I experienced firsthand the effects of false self esteem. It turns out that math was never my strong subject, as I always did better in other subjects. But I never got the math grades in middle school that actually ref lected my quality of work or level of knowledge. Basically, I got to high school and hadn't learned what I needed to and did quite poorly. If anything, the false self esteem that I had acquired only served to explode in my face when the Cs I continued to get in high school math wouldn't go away. What I did eventually learn from this experience was that getting a good grade in math was not the most important thing in the world and had very little to do with the person I was or how successful I would be in later life. Of course, this lesson was at first lost on that fourteenyear- old boy, and the Cs continued to make me unhappy. This is where we begin to go wrong . . . being unhappy is not always a bad thing!

I believe grades and awards are an important guide to building self esteem. As a child progresses through elementary school, he or she receives an overview of how they are doing in contrast to others in their class. Psychologist Bob Selverstone believes that "it is important to learn that one can struggle and achieve success." He believes this leads to the important trait of resilience. Selverstone says:

Couples therapists talk about a threepar t process : (1) infatuat ion, (2) disillusionment, and (3) (if you are ski l lful !) repair. Dramat ists have known this three-step process for centuries. Typically, Act I presents the (sometimes rosy) situation, Act II presents some kind of trauma, and Act III has the resolution. There is always some kind of test (see the Bible and Greek and Roman my thology!) through which a person must pass. (Personal communication, 2010)

I have found that some today believe the contrary — that awards should be given to all, soccer shouldn't be scored, and the "all around" camper award should be a thing of the past. I propose that this is where we have lost our way. In the quest to make everyone feel good, we have created a climate where many children never develop the drive to do better, to strive for more, and more importantly, the ability to push through and stand up to the tougher situations they face. The world has become a "feel good paradise" where being OK and unstressed trumps the personal growth and struggle which builds upon a person's level of true self esteem. I suggest that this has led many young adults to be dismayed by a world where everything doesn't always go their way.

The CBS television show 60 Minutes (Fager, 2007) interviewed the human resource heads of two major corporations who said:

"The problem with the young adults of today is that they need too much feedback and most of it needs to be positive. They have trouble seeing the future and perseverate on a task without seeing the bigger picture, and [. . .] they feel like they should be promoted quickly."

I see this clearly in my work each summer as a camp director. A first year counselor believes he should be a unit leader his second year and doesn't understand why he is not chosen. Some campers cannot understand why their needs can't come first all the time. The camper who doesn't receive the award cannot understand how another got it instead. "No one could deserve it more than me." Then a parent or staff member insists we get rid of all awards. What do we teach by not giving the award?

A favorite teacher of mine, Rabbi Albert S. Goldstein, used to make this point without saying much. At the time, I was not aware of its importance when speaking about self esteem, but little sums up what we are seeing today better. He used to say:

"There is nothing honorary about an honorary degree!" When a university grants a person an honorary degree, their actions have earned that degree and then some; therefore, they deserve it. Perseverance and hard work led to the award.

Parenting over the past fifteen years has changed drastically. I don't believe that parents today intend any of the harmful consequences that may be the result of today's accepted parenting practices. In fact, I think most parents today are being bombarded by new cultural norms that seem abnormal. Most parents are in a war against multimedia and information that moves to their children in a number of ways, and they want to protect them from dealing with the evils of the world too soon. But sometimes these attempts isolate children or put them in a bubble.

In a country and a world that seems to value peeping in on celebrities' lives, it is difficult to continue to have real values ingrained in children. It is not enough that we have real celebrities with issues; we even create celebrities who never do anything to warrant their fame. Many celebrities and sports heroes are the worst kind of role models! With all this and more, why wouldn't a parent want to protect their child?

We can be better and stronger people, courageous in our decision making and confident that we make the right choices for the right reasons. The important task is to find meaning for ourselves and have the "ah-ha" moments where we learn from those good and bad experiences in our lives, and more importantly, understand better our own existence and motivation in life with new clarity that helps us move forward at any age. Accepting who we are and being the best we can be is certainly one road to being happy with ourselves and more successful in our lives. I truly believe that it is absolutely the role that camp professionals need to play with their campers and staff in order to make sure that camp continues to remain a place where true social and emotional education takes place.

Benjamin, I. (2008, January 23). Let me count the ways: Five things about self esteem. Message posted to http://tapbb.wordpress. com/2008/01/23/let-me-count-the-ways-fivethings- about-self-esteem/. The Torah Aura Productions Bulletin Board Blog.

Fager, J. (Producer). (2007, November 11). 60 minutes [Television broadcast]. New York, NY: CBS. 

Mark Lipof, LICSW is the co-owner and founding director of Camp Micah, a co-ed resident ial summe r camp in Br idg ton, Maine. He graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a bachelor's degree in soc iology and earned Massachuset ts high school teacher certification. He earned his MSW degree at Boston College and is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker. Mark's experience with youth is extensive and includes evaluat ion and counseling of adjudicated at-risk youth and residential camp experience at most administrative levels. E-mail the author at markl@campmicah.com.

Originally published in the 2010 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.