Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Dark Side of Self-Esteem

I've noticed an interesting behavior pattern in my kids.  It checks out in what I've seen of other people's kids, too.  I'll describe it for you -- see if it sounds familiar.  Your child achieves [some milestone].  You're thrilled for him!  [Milestone] is something he's worked at for a while, something that once seemed out of reach - but finally, it is his.  And suddenly, in the days following this victory, your sweet child becomes obstinate and disrespectful.  Behavior you thought you'd seen for the last time returns, and tactics that have always worked suddenly don't.  What the heck is going on?

Here's a list of the different milestones in my children's lives that have produced the effect described above:
  • Learning to walk
  • Birthdays
  • Learning to read
  • Learning to ride a bike without training wheels
  • Going to school for the first time
  • Advancing a belt in martial arts
  • Learning to drive (our kids haven't gotten here yet, but I've seen it in other families)
I'm sure there are others, but these are the examples that come immediately to mind.  So here's the question: why on earth would these achievements, these positive milestones, cause bad behavior?

I've thought about that and I have a few answers I'd like to offer.  First of all, I don't think it's  always true that the milestones cause the behavior.  There are probably times when we are so excited about her achievement that we subconsciously cut the kid some slack, then reel them back in after it's over.  But I'm pretty sure that's not the whole story; something bigger is going on here.

What I think is happening is this:  children have a powerful drive to mature, to achieve grown-up status.  It's certainly not the only drive they have, and at times it competes with, say, the drive to sneak cookies or the drive to avoid unpleasant work.  But that drive to grow up is one of the most powerful motivators acting on your child.

And in your child's mind, that milestone - let's say it's riding a bike without training wheels - that ability is the next obstacle on his path to growing up.  It's a big obstacle, and he's fixated on it for a while. 
Each peak obscures your view of the next...

So he begins to see it as the obstacle, rather than an obstacle, between him and adulthood.  It's analogous to wanting to climb a mountain.  From a distance, you have a clear view of the peak you're striving towards, but as you get closer, the foothills obscure the peak and you begin to mistake the slope you're on for the path to the summit, still far ahead.

When she  achieves her goal, it feels like she's basically a grown-up now, except for a few details.  But you're still treating her the same way you did before her big success.  And that, right there, is your recipe for the discord I described at the beginning.

I want to stress that this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Sure, it's unpleasant when your child regresses, but I think every kid deserves to act up now and then.  Mistakes and learning go hand in hand.  What would life be like if somebody always interfered with that process? Achieving major milestones spikes his self-esteem a little more than it should, but the world will correct that soon enough without my help.  I know I don't want to be the one knocking my kid's self-image down a peg. 

So I'm not recommending any particular action; it just helps a little to understand why it's happening.  I try - with mixed success - to meet the unpleasant behavior with patience and correct it the same way I would have when they were younger.  Soon enough, we're back on track and their eyes are on the next goal.


  1. Hi Rich
    I just followed you over from your melanesia blog build and can't believe the synchronicity here.I am a homeschooling dad as well! We have two children and I "do" the homeschooling while mum takes nursing education to the masses. I am also a "retired" social worker with a great interest and fascination with children's development, personalities and parenting generally.

    BTW I like this site too! I agree with this post particularly your final line. I think "regressive" behaviours after goal attainment can be the result of losing immediate forward focus, as you suggest - no new goal. Kind of like bringing a new baby home, sitting him/her in the cot and turning to your partner and saying "what do we do now?".

    One thing I try to do to prepare for this is to ask yourself, or your child, "what are you going to do after your birthday/ award". This may open the door to looking and thinking ahead, beyond that soon to die progression. This helps alleviate that hangover effect you described so well. Now, I am on a roll! How about seeing a goal attained as a loss of what the child was previously. The behaviour may be related to separation of the eight year old child from being a seven year old or whatever?

    Amazing meeting you here ...
    Regards, Terry.

  2. Wow, Terry, who knew we had so much in common despite living on opposite sides of the planet?

    I really like your idea of prompting the child to think beyond their next goal! I'm definitely going to try that next time I see this pattern developing in my kids. Thanks for the comment!