For two kids who share so much of their DNA, my children couldn’t be more different in their displays of self-confidence. My 7-year-old recently got toothpaste on her dress while brushing her teeth, and in response, she burst into tears, dropped to the floor, and rolled around screaming, “I’m the worst person ever!” My 10-year-old, however, acts as though his knowledge already surpasses that of Albert Einstein. Whenever we point out that he’s wrong about something, he disagrees, as if the number of moons orbiting Jupiter is a matter of opinion. Sometimes I wonder if my daughter’s self-esteem is too low and my son’s is too high. How important is having the right amount of self-esteem? Does the right amount even exist?
America’s obsession with self-esteem makes evaluating and encouraging it difficult and messy. U.S. parents often have a hard time estimating how much self-esteem their children have. “It’s a really complex construct in our day-to-day lives,” Chris Barry, a developmental psychologist at Washington State University, told me. For instance, some American kids (and adults) with low self-esteem outwardly project confidence in an attempt to appear self-confident. On top of that, parents tend to overestimate their children’s self-esteem—perhaps both because kids are adept at hiding their issues, and because parents assume that healthy self-esteem is crucial and desperately want to believe their kids are doing fine.