I recently talked to a friend about a conversation she’d just had with her 24-year-old daughter. She’d been telling her daughter about a bad situation that Nicole, one of her oldest friends, had gotten herself into, and her daughter cut her off with a brusque, “It’s her own fault for being so spineless.” My friend was badly shaken, not only by her daughter’s lack of empathy for Nicole, but also because she knew that Nicole was a close friend. When she pointed out that Nicole deserved some compassion, her daughter simply said, “Not from me,” and changed the subject.
My friend then asked herself, as I sometimes have, if in carefully nurturing her daughter’s self-esteem, she had neglected to help her develop wisdom and compassion. In other words, we’ve both found there can be a dark side to untempered self-esteem.
I started thinking about this when touring for my book 200 Ways to Raise a Girl’s Self-Esteem. Often the interviewer would say how fortunate my daughter must be. Those comments always made me squirm, because I knew that any knowledge I had came at the price of mistakes I’d made with my daughter, and that any girl with sound self-esteem still has things to work on.
The three major problems I see emerging—entitlement, control, and intolerance—share a single cause: the emotional imbalance created when parents focus solely on developing their daughters’ self-esteem. In other words, some girls are growing up with an unhealthy sense if entitlement; using their newfound confidence to manipulate and control others; and becoming intolerant of others’ perspectives, so convinced are they of the rightness of their own.
Recently I heard a comedian claim that he would never have children because “It’s the only endeavor in life where you start off with perfection and then screw it up more and more each day.”
And there’s some hard truth in those words. Certainly one of the hardest parts of parenthood is divining what your values and priorities are. I’ve argued that one of the unintended consequences of instilling high self-esteem in girls is that some of them end up lacking empathy and compassion for others.
And boy did that hit a Nerve! Responses varied from “Yikes, what have I created?” to “What’s your problem with uppity women?” At one extreme, parents trying to deal with out of control teenagers can easily overreact and blame high self-esteem for disrespect. At the other extreme, some people are so offended when a man criticizes women that they can’t even consider the argument.
When the rules are being rewritten and we are deep in the emotionally charged throes of parenthood, even extreme responses are understandable. After all, these are our daughters, the issues aren’t simple, and the stakes are enormously high.
I think one respondent articulated the issue particularly well, by pointing out that “failing to teach girls compassion, generosity, or empathy does not have to go along with strengthening their self-esteem, the more likely . . . she’ll be able to be empathetic.”
Indeed, supporting our daughters’ self-esteem is necessary. But one question remains: Are we also devoting adequate time to teaching them respect and compassion for others? It is here, in the intricate balancing act of parenting, that we can get tripped up.
Looking back, I can see all too clearly the things I did or did not do, the places along the way where I stumbled and misjudged, and the cumulative effect these mistakes have had on my daughter’s life.
At 23 she is strong and has plenty of self-esteem and a laser-like focus on her goals. She is also capable of running over anyone who gets in her way—not out of malice, but simply because their needs are not on her radar.
In retrospect, I know I focused more on supporting her strength than on helping her see the importance of caring about others.
The irony, of course, is that with her brother—for whom I so desperately wanted sensitivity—I focused almost exclusively on nurturing compassion and emotional intelligence.
In the end, I suppose it comes down to this: We are human, and we make mistakes, but because we love our children, we cannot be afraid to own up to our mistakes—and then do everything we can to set them right.
But it’s hard to bring this issue up. It is not a regular conversational topic among folks who work to empower women. In fact, plenty of people will dismiss the whole critique as undermining the good work we do.
Despite the risks to the messenger, I am willing to raise this issue because I believe it is a vitally important one to correct if our daughters are going to live full and happy lives.
About the author: The father of a daughter, Will Glennon is the author of 200 Ways to Raise a Girl’s Self-Esteem: An Indespensable Guide for Parents, Teachers & Other Concerned Caregivers and The Collected Wisdom of Fathers.