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How Buddhism can help
The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident And Compassionate Kids In An Age of Self-Importance
Polly Young-Eisendrath, PhD
New York: Little, Brown, 2008
256 pp.; $26.00 (cloth)
Polly Young-Eisendrath is a Jungian analyst and psychotherapist; the author of thirteen books on psychology, gender, and spirituality; a mother; and a Buddhist. (She edited a volume of teachings by her Zen teacher, Philip Kapleau Roshi, and now studies Vipassana with Shinzen Young.) Her most recent book, The Self-Esteem Trap, raises the $20-million question so many parents, educators, and therapists are asking themselves: how did today’s children and young adults come to be so self-involved, entitled, disrespectful, and unhappy? Young-Eisendrath is eminently qualified to offer answers to this conundrum and lays out the historical and cultural underpinnings she has observed firsthand as a therapist, parent, grandparent, and longtime investigator of the workings of human suffering. It is through the common sense of Buddhist teachings, she says, that we can start to turn the tide of raising uneasy, empathy-less kids and guide them toward compassion and authentic self-worth as well as an understanding of the consequences of their actions.
The trouble with kids has been brewing for generations. Baby boomers, in reaction to their own parents’ psychological shortcomings and bootstrap child rearing, have muddled into what Young- Eisendrath calls “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” parenting, which holds that adults and children are “on nearly equal footing when it comes to rights and needs, that parents should be friends with their children, and that children’s selfesteem must be promoted and protected at all costs.” The upshot of this is a dearth of clear limits, expectations, and opportunities for character building that has resulted in a multitude of confused youth fixated on their own specialness and ill equipped to weather difficulties, whether on the playground, within the family, or—as teens— in romance.
Young-Eisendrath points to excessive and unearned praise as an important contributing factor in breeding the current generation of approval junkies. It’s endemic in the handling of young children and teens these days: recently at the elementary school where I work I heard a mother tell her 5-year-old “You’re such a rock star!” after he’d slid down the slide, and teacher comments on my 11- year-old daughter’s writing and math homework often include the phrases “Awesome!” or “That’s so cool!” While some of these kudos evaporate before they sink in, kids are certainly afloat in a semantic sea of inflated praise. It may build them up, but as Young-Eisendrath reports, it doesn’t give them much to fall back on, especially when coupled with parenting that doesn’t help them develop mettle and conflict resolution skills.
Too often we try to shield our children from adversity: when friendships fall apart, we intervene instead of standing by and listening; we try to switch teachers, or schools, for reasons that used to be tolerated as the normal ups and downs of 12 or more years in the educational system. We don’t want our kids ever to be frustrated or bored, or even to buckle down to the tedious practice of basic life skills such as doing the dishes and folding the laundry. By way of illustrating the pervasive phenomenon of what Young-Eisendrath calls “helicopter” parenting—adults who hover over their kids and do everything for them—I can mention a phone call a friend told me about that the dean of her son’s college received from a student’s mother, halfway across the country. “He doesn’t know where the bread in the dining hall is,” the mother admonished. “Can you make sure someone shows him?” When kids and young adults encounter genuine hurdles in life with no one to run interference on their behalf, or when they find out they’re not rock stars and likely never will be, they can’t cope, let alone be happy in ordinary life.
Cultivating “ordinariness”—a state of being that rests on cultivating conscience and virtue—is a crucial goal to set for young people, Young- Eisendrath says, but this is easier said than done. I questioned my 11-yearold— whose school notebooks are decorated with quotes from Coco Chanel (“In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different”; “A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future”) and the self-styled slogan “Willa is awesome”—about being ordinary. She instantly rejected the notion: “Why would I want to do that? I want to be famous.” Indeed, she does live in the age of selfimportance, and with the exception of her family members and the moral compass with which she miraculously came into this life, there’s nothing much out there to convince her of the value of being ordinary.
Nevertheless, Young-Eisendrath argues that parents can circumvent the influences of peers and mass culture by introducing kids to a version of the six perfections, or paramis. Cultivating generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom “should be viewed as exercises or activities” for parents and children to practice together, she suggests. Discipline, for example, can take the form of structured family routines and chores, which can lead “to true self-confidence and selfworth,” Young-Eisendrath says. “When a sound conscience meets up with the superego in later adolescence, an ordinary child has the makings of wisdom, even before adult life has unfolded.”
While Young-Eisendrath points to ways in which the paramis and teachings such as the First Noble Truth (the truth of suffering) can help guide our kids, and gives some examples of how adults can interpret and model these, most of the book is devoted to the how and why of depressed and anxious young people. Any of us in the business of raising or teaching children in the current climate could use a lot more prescriptive advice than The Self-Esteem Trap offers.
A Buddhist teacher recently described the psychic turmoil experienced by a young American monk upon returning to the U.S. from a brief stint in a tough Thai monastery: “He was there long enough to find out he wasn’t as smart as he thought he was, but not long enough to find out that that’s okay.” Luckily for the young man, he now lives in a monastic setting where he’ll be supported in coming to that realization. The challenge for parents and teachers today is to create that radical kind of environment— one that demands and honors the skill and strength of being ordinary— when everything in our world says ordinary is not okay. ▼
Mary Talbot is a Tricycle contributing editor.