Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Problem With Praise

Rutland Herald, Rutland, Vermont
Author says self-esteem kick is hobbling society
August 31, 2008
Staff Writer

Vermont psychologist Polly Young-Eisendrath remembers when she first noticed people in their 20s and 30s reporting the same symptoms: They felt deficient or dissatisfied. Feared humiliation. Fell at times into depression, anxiety or addiction.

The therapist, seeking the cause, asked each about their childhoods. She found similarities — but not based on any shared disadvantage. Instead, all recalled parents who deemed them “special” and doled out gold stars and “good job!” praise for the simplest and smallest of actions.

Young-Eisendrath, a 61-year-old mother and grandmother, started thinking.

“I wondered if the restlessness, self-obsession and cynicism that I witnessed in youth and children had to do with the dying out of ‘traditional’ parenting, the kind that I grew up with, where the lines between the generations were clearly drawn and a hierarchy of power was always in place.”

And so she began to research and write her new book. “The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance” is her 256-page answer to the question of what’s ailing today’s seemingly well-off youth and how their troubles are affecting society.

The therapist only has to follow the news to find examples. The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, for example, just announced that a tougher state law targeting teen speeders has reduced fatal crashes by 37 percent — and raised families’ demands for taxpayer-supported ticket-reconsideration hearings by 20 percent.

So what happens when today’s youth become tomorrow’s lawmakers, teachers, repairmen and nurses?

Young-Eisendrath, in practice for two decades, has read plenty of books about the problem of idealizing and indulging children. But other than the cocktail recipes in the strange-but-true mother’s guide “The Three-Martini Playdate,” she found little that was stirring up conversation about a solution. That’s why she spent a year interviewing young people, parents, school and social workers and mental health experts.

Her book, which Little, Brown and Company will release Tuesday, is reaping good reviews from fellow therapists like Michael Gurian, author of the national bestseller “The Wonder of Boys” (he calls it “groundbreaking”). Young-Eisendrath now hopes what she discovered will get everyone else talking.

Leading to failure

Drive 10 miles north from the Statehouse in Montpelier and you’ll reach the small town of Worcester, where, up a hidden, hillside road, Young-Eisendrath lives and works.

An Ohio native who moved to Vermont 12 years ago, she’s a psychologist (a social scientist of the brain and its behavior), a psychotherapist (a specialist who treats mental issues) and, specifically, a Jungian analyst (a practitioner of pioneer C.G. Jung’s ideas for studying the unconscious).

And that’s just the start. Young-Eisendrath is a consultant for leadership development at Norwich University and a clinical associate professor at the University of Vermont. She also has written or edited more than a dozen books that have been translated into 20 languages, with titles including “The Resilient Spirit: Transforming Suffering Into Insight and Renewal” and “You’re Not What I Expected: Love After the Romance Has Ended.”

Her latest work wasn’t sparked by her own scholarship, however, but by the suffering of others. She saw many young people growing up in nurturing households, only to tailspin when they traded the nest for the real world. Some felt entitled yet self-conscious and confused. Others felt stifling pressure to be exceptional. Still others felt hopeless or helpless because they couldn’t have or be what they imagined.

Some clinical psychologists, watching such youth reel through a revolving door of jobs and relationships, figured it was simply “attention deficit” or the effects of television, computer games and other fast-forward culture. But Young-Eisendrath wasn’t convinced. And so she started investigating.

Her first finding: The nation is reeling from a “tectonic cultural shift” in child-rearing techniques. Parents in the first half of the 20th century based their teachings on the “golden rule” of respect. But over the past 40 years, families have heard lots of hype about the importance of self-esteem and the need to strengthen it with praise.

Many took this beyond a gold star on a chore chart. Young-Eisendrath interviewed one grandmother who complained that her daughter threw a party to celebrate her toddler’s toilet training.

“Today’s parents tend to offer too much approval and enthusiasm for their children’s very existence, disrupting the child’s growing ability to discern the truth about her own effects and actions,” the therapist writes in her book. “Instead of helping our children learn how to work, love and share in their families and communities, we taught them to focus on their own achievements and expectations for success.”

And that, she found, is leading to failure.

‘Not about blame’

Young-Eisendrath, whose blended family includes six grown children, reassures parents that she empathizes.

“I want to be very clear here,” she says in an interview. “This is not a book about blame.”

Instead, she’s hoping to help people recognize and rectify their mistakes.

“I believe that never before has it been so confusing and destabilizing to be a parent. And never before have we had a generation of such confused and unhappy young adults whose lives seem desirable from the outside. Something has gone drastically wrong.”

How can praise and protection harm a child? Young-Eisendrath says a constant diet of “junk praise” for basics like sitting up straight can spark an unhealthy hunger for admiration or approval. And parents who “helicopter” over high school and college students deny youth the opportunity to learn how to make personal judgments.

“Over time, children can actually lose confidence in their own capacity to assess themselves if their parents overpraise, and this leaves them — teens especially — very susceptible to peer pressure and pop culture.”

This trend isn’t confined to MTV or shopping malls. Young-Eisendrath writes: “As much as I love and embrace the culture of my adopted state (I’ve been here 12 years), I have discovered a kind of specialness here too: a type of perfectionism about food, exercise and creativity in family life that can lead to the trap of believing that life can be controlled in order to do everything ‘just right.’”

Perfectionism, she says, can prevent people from being realistic, flexible and modest. Consider the young man she tags with the pseudonym “Andrew.” Attractive, artistic and athletic, the Ivy League graduate is nonetheless so insecure with work and relationships he has spent the past six years on antidepressants.

“Andrew had for many years felt unclear about how to guide himself and do what would be expected of an adult,” she writes. “Andrew felt that he failed if he didn’t produce something spectacular after just a few months, even weeks, in a new endeavor.”

He isn’t alone.

Worries at home, work

Young-Eisendrath cites statistics that show only about 2 percent of Americans born before 1915 experienced a major depressive episode even though they lived through the Great Depression and two world wars. In comparison, the rate for today’s young people has risen to 15 to 20 percent.

“Today’s families are raising our future,” she says. “And many of them are in trouble.”

The therapist points to over-the-top examples like Paris Hilton, “who is famous mostly for being famous.” But she also tells the story of a freshman at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester who sniffed during dorm orientation: “Sharing a bathroom? This is so not going to work.”

In another instance from the same school, a mother phoned a college official to say her child was calling home with complaints. The parent asked what she should do.

The reply: “Don’t answer the phone.”

(Students should learn to speak for themselves, the official explained before taking his own advice and quitting after too much parental interference.)

Young-Eisendrath says coddling can spawn problems when students enter the workplace — especially for youth unaccustomed to the low wages and menial tasks of entry-level jobs.

“If our parents were afraid to act as authority figures,” she writes, “we may be left with a premature belief in the excellence of our own judgments and overstep boundaries with those who are more experienced — only to feel ashamed and defeated when we are criticized for it.”

Young people can stumble in personal relationships, too.

“The normal disillusionments of romance — when faults and difficulties make a potential partner seem ugly or inferior and power struggles abound — are frightening,” she continues. “Gen Me’ers tend to run the other way. They assume that they’ve chosen the wrong person. The fact is they’d have to stick around longer in order to find out.”

In the book’s most extreme example of too much freedom, the therapist recalls the 2001 murders of two Dartmouth professors. The two Vermont teenagers convicted of the crime attended the grade K-12 Chelsea School, which had relaxed its rules in hopes that students, free of adult intrusion, would discover, develop and “become themselves.”

Young-Eisendrath is careful not to blame any parent or teacher. But she points to the opinion of Chelsea psychiatrist Andy Pomerantz. Seven years ago he told the New York Times: “Sometimes people do very bad things — it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with our community.” Now, upon reflection, he’s quoted in the book as saying his town failed the boys because it never addressed their arrogance with proper discipline and restraint.

‘Know how to help’

So how can parents, schools and communities raise respectful, responsible children? Young-Eisendrath draws her answers not only from psychology and psychotherapy but also from the world’s religious traditions, starting with her 37-year practice of Buddhism.

The therapist says children, rather than listening to a constant chorus of “good job,” need to learn how to assess and be accountable for themselves.

“Accurate self-esteem includes a knowledge of our weaknesses and limitations,” she writes. “It allows us to acknowledge when we need the help of others, as well as what we can do independently and well.”

(“You should be able to complain straightforwardly about your kid,” she adds, “because your kid causes you a lot of trouble in addition to bringing you joy.”)

Young-Eisendrath says chores can teach children about generosity and discipline, while adversity offers lessons in patience and diligence. Citing her own upbringing, she explains how she was expected to work at home (she was an only child), school (she was valedictorian) and a 20-hour-a-week job (her paycheck helped fund her working-class household).

“Until you really know what suffering is,” she says, “you do not know how to help.”

But many parents not only shield their children from responsibility but also sweep up their mistakes. That, the author says, is a bigger blunder.

“Excessive parental problem-solving actually prevents children from having real experiences of decision making, failing and cleaning up their own messes,” she writes. “Overpraising and running interference weaken the legs that our children need to stand on when they leave home.”

The therapist stresses that parents can still protect.

“This doesn’t mean parents should throw their children to the wolves,” she says, “but rather they should be sure that their children learn how to fight the wolves for themselves before leaving home.”

Children should be able to learn from their missteps, she believes.

“Instead of thinking in terms of protecting them from negative outcomes or feelings, parents should think in terms of allowing them to experience and then express the consequences of what they tried,” she writes. “Your job is not to be your child’s best friend, but rather to prepare him to have a fulfilling life of his own.”

And reap all the intangible rewards.

Book Exerpts:

“Keep in mind the spirit of generosity and gratitude when you teach your child to do chores. The reason for chores is to help your child become responsible for others’ welfare as well as his own.

Find chores that are truly important (for example, caring for a pet or plant) and age-appropriate.

Be specific and detailed in showing your child how to do the chore, watch over him for a while, and then let the task be up to your child. Of course, remain in the background as a safety net (don’t let the cat die of malnourishment if your son doesn’t feed it), but don’t take over the responsibility either.

Your child should actually feel the negative consequences of not performing a chore or doing it poorly.

There is nothing that increases resilience in children more than feeling they are able to perform important tasks and can be depended upon.”

And challenges:

“When an age-appropriate problem or difficulty presents itself in your child’s life, encourage her to jump in and attempt to solve it.

If things work out well, let her reward come directly from the situation, not mostly from your praise.

If things go badly, or not as she would wish, allow her to engage with the negative feelings and outcomes, while supporting her by being confident (“I really believe that you can get through this.”) Conveying directly or indirectly that she’s strong enough to weather the storm helps her develop a healthier psychological immune system.

Counsel your child against believing that her happiness will come mostly from external things — her appearance, grades, athletic successes — because it won’t.”

— From “The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance” by Polly Young-Eisendrath. The $25.99 hardcover, published by Little, Brown and Company, can be purchased or ordered at most bookstores.

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