Picture a gleaming trophy with an athlete poised atop its reflective surface. Except this statue captures a moment of clumsiness instead of prowess; the player awkwardly misses the ball and the text on the trophy reads “GOOD TRY.” Next to the gilded figure stands the headline: “How the Cult of Self-Esteem Is Ruining Our Kids.” That’s how Lori Gottlieb’s article in this month’s The Atlantic caught my attention.
Juxtapose that cover with an image still stuck in my mind from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, where author Amy Chua describes 3-4 hour piano practice sessions so stressful that her daughter leaves teeth marks on the instrument. Gottlieb examines the implications of over-identification and helicopter parenting, while Chua glorifies her “venomous tongue” because nothing less than the best is acceptable to her and it leads (she claims) to straight A’s and Olympic medals. Despite their different approaches, these parenting types are ultimately the same—parents idolizing worldly success for their children so both parties can feel worthwhile.
Gottlieb’s essay “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” explains how ceaseless parental attention and lifestyles devoted to children (their every emotion, burgeoning interests, and myriad activities) makes said children feel like the center of the world. The problem, according to Gottlieb, is that such children grow into narcissistic adults who can’t handle the frustrations and conflicts of real life. Someone else has always done it for them (while handing them meaningless trophies, stroking their egos, and reminding them what special snowflakes they are). As Gottlieb concludes, “by trying so hard to provide the perfectly happy childhood, we’re just making it harder for our kids to actually grow up. Maybe we parents are the ones who have some growing up to do—and some letting go.” Parents and children alike are so afraid to fail that they miss the point that growing up, for both parents and children, requires failure. Lots of it. And so parents who view themselves as martyrs raise a generation as fragile as “teacups.”
I do not advocate the controversial stance outlined by Amy Chua in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother either. She offers a style of rigid parenting that reads more like a guide for breaking rookie soldiers because: “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” That eventual fun (or at least being the best) supposedly justifies the yelling and criticism Chua generously doles out. Aside from the dangerous generalizations Chua presents about “Western” and “non-Western” parenting, there’s a clear message that life is about winning. Chua certainly doesn’t fall into the self-esteem-at-all-costs trap Gottlieb describes, but her alternative (where life itself is a competition only geniuses can win) is just as self-centered. Both scenarios – whether children are losers-with-trophies or piano prodigies – are meant to reflect parental success.
I sympathize with these extremes. Every week at story hour, I watch my little girl (the one who never stops talking at home) retreat into my lap and give everyone the stink face. No, she will not jump into the circle. No, she will not sing. No, she will not march with an instrument unless mommy carries her. Never mind how often we sing those songs at home while forcing her stuffed animals to jump into a circle. I imagine all the concerns other story-hour parents conjure about my child—the silent, stony-faced, mama’s girl. But really, those concerns are mine, about me and showing that I’m a fantastic mom, because anyone who knows my daughter well knows she is happy and healthy. The extremism that seeps into our story hour is just part and parcel of parenting (which is not, in fact, a competitive endeavor) and wanting the best for our kids.
But what extreme parenting misses is that the fundamental issue here is idolatry. As creatures created in the image of God, we’re supposed to reflect Him and His values—not humans and human values. A life that centers around anything other than God is idolatrous. God hates idolatry because it’s wrong and it’s untrue (it gives undue credit to a creation instead of the Creator). Idolatry is also bad for humans, because God knows nothing but Himself can satisfy our deepest longings. The happiness Gottlieb’s subjects find elusive and the perfection Chua requires of her children are just false idols.
To feel good enough, both parents and children are under pressure to perform, and to be really happy about it. The more dangerous pressure for children comes from being idolized. Imagine the pressure of being the center of someone else’s universe, the definition of their self-worth, and the source of their ultimate happiness. That’s not what children are supposed to be and do. That’s not a burden anyone but God can bear, and even to allow God to fulfill in His own job description requires self-submission (such a dirty word these days), not self-aggrandizement. Biblical self-esteem is actually the opposite of secular self-esteem, and the results are different, too. The world directs inward, toward self and personal happiness and human recognition, while God pushes us outward, toward service and sacrifice and the incomprehensible joy of submission.
Gottlieb’s research and Chua’s manifesto illustrate two extremes, neither of which is Godly. There are helicopter parents who want their children to feel super just the way they are and militaristic parents who bind their children to impossible performance standards. In between stands God, whose grace balances original sin. No worldly trophy can measure how much we, the created, mean to the Creator. God alone is El Shaddai—the All Sufficient One, and nothing and no one else can satisfy us permanently. Worldly self-esteem will always be focused on what the world holds dear; those things decay and fluctuate along with the whims of us capricious and selfish humans. Godly self-esteem will always be focused on God’s infinite wisdom and loveliness. Instead of looking to yet another trophy to affirm how much we and our kids matter, look to the cross. We’re all sinners there, and Christ doesn’t tell us “Good try” or “Try harder” when we know we’ve missed the mark; look to the cross, and to the empty tomb, where Christ’s strength is made perfect in our human weakness, and our happiness is subsumed by the perfect fullness of God’s joy.
I remember one day when my daughter was an infant, I lovingly referred to her as “my wicked little sinner.” My extended family loudly and vehemently uttered their outrage. But it’s true. I find my daughter charming, captivating, gentle and brave and generally adorable. She’s a sinner too. My husband and I used to joke about why our daughter fought her swaddle like Houdini. “See the baby Jesus?” I would tease, “I bet Joseph didn’t need to pin down His arms while Mary wrapped Him!” I imagined my daughter’s response as something along the lines of “Yeah, but my mother ain’t exactly the Virgin Mary.”
Godly parenting isn’t about pushing my own agenda, making my child feel good so that I feel like a good (enough) mother; it’s not about basking in the vicarious glow of my child’s accolades or accomplishments. It’s really not about me at all, and that’s the hard part for a parent to reconcile with a sinful nature that loves to chase after false idols. Godly parenting is a balancing act, between grace and original sin, between the perseverance that produces character and the love that covers a multitude of sins. It requires submission and faith that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can guide me in sufficient parenting because God alone is All Sufficient; there’s no trophy for that kind of parenting or growing up, because God Himself is the ultimate prize.