07 October, 2008


ISBN-13: 978-0-316-01311-6
ISBN-10: 0-316-01311-0:

Are the 20-somethings and 30-somethings of our world self-absorbed? Do they appear to lack compassion, empathy, integrity, virtue, and the ability to cope with disappointments and resolve adversities?

Well, Polly Young-Eisendrath, Ph.D., a Jungian analyst and psychologist, consultant for Leadership Development at Leadership Development at Norwich University, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Vermont, and a prolific author provides some “straight-no chaser” answers to these and other questions about what what is going on with our 20-somethings and 30-somethings in The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident And Compassionate Kids In An Age Of Self-Importance.

So, what motivated Dr. Young-Eisendrath to write this book?

Dr. Young-Eisdendrath who has a full-time psychotherapy practice in Vermont, pointed to the fact that she was “at the end of her rope” and stated that her heart ached for “anxious parents who worried that their teenage and older children lacked good sense and empathy for others”. A combination of a seemingly unending parade of distraught parents beating a path to her door and baring their souls about their greatest fears about their children’s lack of compassion, empathy and inability to cope with disappointments and adversities; well-educated 20-somethings and 30-somethings who seemed to have achieved the American dream expressing dissatisfaction with their lives; and young mothers who espoused “impossible ideals” for themselves and their children pushed Dr. Young-Eisendrath to the edge. “One day something snapped. ‘Enough!’,” she remarked.

In the book’s Introduction on pages 3-4, Dr. Young-Eisendrath goes on to say:

“I had read every book out there on idealizing and indulging our children. For all that I read, I could not find a foothold that allowed me or my clients to climb out of the box we were trapped in. It felt as if we had glue on the bottom of our feet. The box is our shared cultural attitude: that everyone is special, a winner, with the potential to be great. Inside the box we believe that everyone has something extraordinary to contribute to life and that being ordinary is an embarrassment. This attitude makes a powerful demand on parents and children and creates excessive self-focus and relentless desires to be or have the best. And although parenting experts have critiqued and studied what’s inside this box, we have not been able to step out of it. Stepping out is too painful if we blame ourselves personally for being stuck here in the first place, or if we see no other alternative for happiness and self-confidence. In the 1970s and 1980s, teachers and parents began a campaign to cure low self-esteem in our young. Hoping to incrase children’s creativity and self-expression, this educational and parenting movement unwittingly promoted a self-esteem trap: unrealistic fantasies of achievement, wealth, power, and celebrity. When these expectations are not met in adult life – as inevitably they are not – the result is a negative evaluation of the self. And the trap of negative self-absorption cannot be eased or helped by more focus on the self. Quite a few good books have already been written on this subject, some based on studies and others on clinical observations. They identify a problem, although they call it by different names. And yet no one has uncovered the roots of the problem or found the cure. Obsessive self-focus, restless dissatisfaction, pressures to be exceptional, unreadiness to take on adult responsibilities, feelings of superiority (or inferiority), and excessive fears of being humiliated are the pervasive symptoms of the problem, recognized by those who are trapped and by those of us observing them – mental health professionals, educators, parents, and grandparents. I could use labels like ‘narcissism’ and ‘entitlement,’ but I believe they are insulting, especially when used in a judgmental, diagnostic, or accusatory way. Instead of labeling, I want to get us out of this harmful trap and to stop us from blaming ourselves and others. And so I decided to write a book myself. . . . Writing books helps me understand what I don’t understand.”

In Chapter One of her book entitled, “The Trouble With Being Special”, Dr. Young-Eisendrafth discusses two individuals. The first individual is a thirty-something divorce√© who is an Ivy League college graduate and successful psychiatric resident, but yet has negative feelings about herself, is uncertain about what direction she wants to take in life, is afraid of being alone, and feels that “it was not in the plan for anything to go wrong” in her life. The second individual is a forty-something married mother who is employed as a school counselor. It seems that one night the forty-something married mother experienced a gall bladder attack when she called out to her 19 year old son and asked him to give her the telephone. Instead of being empathetic and dialing the telephone number to get medical attention for his mother, her son asked, “What’s wrong with you?” She told her son that she was very ill and might need to go to the hospital. Her son was so immersed in his own self-importance that he nonchalantly told her, “Could you hand me the phone when you’re done? I’m in the middle of ordering a pizza!” Dr. Young Eisendrath ends this discussion with the statement: “Something has gone drastically wrong.” She surmises that children such as the 19-year old son of the married mother described above are unable to step back from their own needs when those needs are in conflict with another person’s more important needs. Young-Eisdendrath observes that children in America exhbit pervasive symptoms of what she calls the “self-esteem trap” – obsessive self-focus, restless dissatisfaction, pressures to be exceptional, unreadiness to take on adult responsibilities, feelings of superiority (or inferiority), and excessive fears of being humiliated. She surmises that the “self-esteem trap” breeds “unhappy adult children who feel defective because they are unable to have or be what they imagined for themselves”. And if these symptoms go “unchecked” throughout childhood and early adulthood and become reinforced by “other social conditions”, Young-Eisendrath says these symptoms can lead to “chronic emotional disorder such as depression, narcissism, and addiction”.

So, how does a child become self-focused, self-obsessed and remain that way through adulthood? Young-Eisendrath points to the “I’m Okay-You’re Okay” School Of Parenting. It seems that the “I’m Okay-You’re Okay” School Of Parenting has three parenting styles – laissez-faire, helicopter, and role reversal.

Laissez-Faire parents, whom Dr. Young-Eisendrath identifies as being predominantly parents from the Baby Boom Generation and are, to use her words, “indirect, nonconfrontational, vague and friendly in their attempts to be authorities.” She says Laissez-Faire parents do not feel that they have a parenting style because they don’t view themselves as being authority figures. They either don’t give advice or when they do give it, they apologize to the child for giving advice. At the same time, Laissez Faire parents want to give their children the best encouragement and opportunities and “they love to show off their chidlren’s accomplishments and successes,” according to Young-Eisendrath. Laissez-faire parents more times than not undermine or disagree with criticisms about their children from school officials, authorities or other individuals outside of the family unit. Young-Eisendrath describes Laissez-Faire parents as being “laid back or inconsistent in their discipline” and notes that these parents always try to see their children in the most positive light.

Dr. Young-Eisendrath also shares with the reader a discussion that a plainclothes school policeman had with her concerning parents and the behavior of school children. It seems that the plainclothes school policeman believes that too many parents have adopted the Laissez-Faire method of parenting. He had this to say to Dr. Young-Eisendrath:

“The biggest problem we face is that parents run a bunch of excuses for their kids’ behaviors. The majority of the time, I hear ‘That teacher has it in for my kid.,’ or ‘It’s just what kids do at this age’. It’s not a hundred percent of time, but it’s probably in the high eighties.”

He goes on to say that too often adults do not want to conduct themselves as authority figures but rather as one of the children’s friends. He drives home the point by stating the following:

“We even have teachers here who refer to the students as their friends. This is what I call the ‘I’m Okay-You’re Okay’ syndrome. They have ‘time-outs’, no consequences. As parents and educators, we have to fill the role of being authorities and mentors, not friends.”

Helicopter parents are described by Young-Eisendrath as parents “who hover around their children and want to be close friends – not just friendly – with them. She goes on to say that this type of parenting “is rooted in the belief that children and parents always need to have pleasant, cozy feelings”. Thus, Helicopter parenting hones in on children’s successes and creativity as well as relating to children in a nonconfrontational and nonconflictual manner. She further states that Helicopter parenting avoids unpleasant feelings and negative judgments. This is a parenting style that is attributed to parents of the post-Baby Boomer generation. And she observes that helicopter parenting gives rise to the “preschoolers you can see on playgrounds every day, screaming and sometimes kicking at their mothers because the crusts aren’t cut off their bread, or because their juice box, while the right flavor, is the wrong brand. She warns that “Helicopter parents are unknowingly cultivating little tyrants who will, in their teenage and later years, become intensely afraid of humiliation or even depressed when they are unable to be famous or rich or powerful.”

Dr. Young-Eisdendrath discusses the role-reversal parenting style which she characterizes as being more indulgent, more mutual, and child-oriented than the helicopter parenting style. She defines the role reversal parenting style as the expression of the “children as flowers fantasy”. The “children as flowers fantasy” espouses the doctrine of giving children “the right nourishment, open affection, a lot of freedom” and “encouraging their inner genius” and that by doing so, children will flourish. According to Dr. Young-Eisendrath this style of parenting found its way into a small Central Vermont school. What was the end result? The Chief Psychiatrist at a Veterans Hospital in Central Vermont whose three children attended the school in question, described to Dr. Young-Eisendrath what occurs when a school becomes “child-centered:

“There was a word that the administration used. It was ‘adultism’. ‘Adultism’ was forbidden at the school. Young people should not be limited in their freedom to explore and develop their creativity. That was the ideal that the school was following. There was this belief that this is what you need for creativity to flower. Among other things, kids were coming to school dressed any way they wanted to, half-naked in the warm weather. There was nobody to hit the gong when anybody stepped over the boundaries, if there were boundaries. There was an arrest in the gym because a student claimed that she was raped by another student. It turned out that the kids could have sexual adventures in the gym, right there during school hours.”

So, what style of parenting does Dr. Young-Eisendrafth advocate? In her book she states that she advocates a style of parenting that is based on interdependence and autonomy – a parenting style that depends on a “We” rather than a “Me” or “They” philosophy – a style of parenting that “moves away from equality between parents and children” and one that moves toward “parents as leaders” and one that also focuses on “the importance of adversity, the necessity of conscience and virtue, the subtleties of self-governance, and the value of being ordinary”.

The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident And Compassionate Kids In An Age Of Self-Importance is a powerful and groundbreaking book which will help many of us make some sense out of the troubling behavior and lack of compassion exhibited by some – not all, mind you – children and young adults – that we have all witnessed.

The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident And Compassionate Kids In An Age Of Self-Importance is recommended reading for parents, educators, law enforcement professionals, social services providers and professionals, legal professionals, social entrepreneurs, religious leaders, Fatherhood Practitioners, and business leaders.

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