The Disturbing Thing About Fairy Stories

Posted on Wed, Jan 30, 2008 @ 04:03 PM
From a spectator's viewpoint . . .
Alena and the Favorite Thing

Toby Young's tongue-in-cheek rant in today's Spectator may be an amusing read, but it makes a serious point.

As Young notices, "The disturbing thing about fairy stories is that the father is always a useless weed." If he's even in the story at all, that is.

Among other questions Young asks, "Why does the King do nothing to protect Snow White from the Wicked Queen? Why doesn’t she ask him for help? Why is running away her only option?"

And to think we've sometimes believed it's only modern media that relegate fathers to second-class citizenship.

But no, the phenomenon is so pervasive that Eric B. Anderson, a father who finally reached the end of his tether after searching through a bookstore for an appropriate story, finally decided to write for his daughter himself.

"The humorous books tend to depict fathers as bumbling figures and the sentimental books tend to mythologize the role of the father," says Anderson, "I felt neither bumbling nor God-like, so I decided to write about what the relationship means to me."

Unfortunately, the big publishers haven't caught on yet to this millennia-long gap in the children's book market, and Anderson wasn't sure how much longer it would take for them to notice it. So he published the book himself using an illustrator he found through a freelancing Web site. The Polish artist, Jakub Kuzma, has illustrated more than 150 children's books, although Anderson's Alena and the Favorite Thing is his first foray into the American market.

But here's the really interesting part: Anderson's marketing strategy follows what he calls "the Radiohead model."  Just as that rock band has offered one of its albums for free download online to encourage sales, so also is Anderson making his first Alena story in the planned series availablefree and in fullonline.

"I've realized that I've never purchased a book for my daughter without being able to read it first, so why should I expect that other parents will?" Anderson points out. "I'm confident that once readers get a look at the book, they'll go ahead and get a copy. It's a leap of faith, but one that I believe will pay dividends."

This may be true, not only for Eric Anderson, but also for fathers in general. As long as cultural media ignore the important role of fathers, fathers themselves will hardly be motivated to do otherwise.

Tags: Eric B. Anderson, Fairy tales, fathers, Jakub Kuzma, Toby Young

No More Heroes?

Posted on Sun, Jan 27, 2008 @ 04:05 PM
Some say they're out there—if you know where to look
Welles Crowther: The Man in the Red Bandana

Froma Walsh is an award-winning family therapist who speaks and consults internationally on the subject of resilience—the ability to weather adversity and resist depression. She says one trait that helps families and communities to transcend difficulty is the ability to draw on the inspiration of heroes.

“Beyond the borders of our everyday world, we can be inspired by the life stories of great men and women of courage and high attainment who have overcome adversity,” says Walsh. In her experience, people can reach beyond their own preconceived limits by looking to positive heroes who “model resilience and inspire our strength and success.”

This is all very well, but what if we have no heroes to look to?

That may be precisely our modern predicament, but according to Mark Barrowcliffe of the Times Online, it's our own fault. Barrowcliffe argues convincingly that there are still people who have the stuff of which heroes are made—but we fail to recognize and venerate them because we focus on the wrong characteristics: fame, money and glitz instead of courage, loyalty and selflessness.

To illustrate the truth of Barrowcliffe’s accusation, think back to the last time you stood in a supermarket check-out and glanced at the magazine covers. What are the most famous accomplishments of the celebrity heroes whose names you can recall almost as easily as your own? They’ve starred in movies, excelled in sports, crooned hit songs or walked down runways modeling clothes that people could never wear in real life. While some may give to charitable causes and be extremely nice people, they are not famous because they have been noble or courageous or resolutely loyal and self-sacrificing. They’re famous simply for being—famous.

Now, think of a few other names, not nearly so well-known. Liviu Librescu: the Romanian-born Virginia Tech professor who was shot holding off a gunman so his students could escape through the windows of his classroom. Welles Crowther, the 24-year-old “man in a red bandana” who helped countless people to safety on 9/11 before being buried under the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Irena Sendler, the Polish social worker who defied the Nazis to save the lives of 2,500 children by smuggling them to safety. Even after her arrest and subsequent torture she refused to reveal their hiding places.

If, as Froma Walsh suggests, community resilience depends in part on the inspiration of those who have themselves courageously overcome adversity, maybe we do need to rethink our icons. Mark Barrowcliffe is right—the problem isn’t that heroes don’t exist anymore. We’ve just forgotten how to tell who they are.

Tags: resilience, celebrities, character, fame, heroes, Irena Sendler, Liviu Librescu, Welles Crowther

The Pet Connection

Posted on Thu, Jan 24, 2008 @ 04:07 PM
Or: Some Animals Have More Sense Than Some People Do

BearA long-time friend wrote yesterday to say a beloved family dog, Bear, had died. Bear had been with Chris and Lorie for a decade, and was a member of the family as much as a pet.

Most people are easily able to empathize when things like this happen, because many of us have also experienced the grief that results from the loss of a special animal and we identify with the love and companionship shared between humans and their animal friends.

Those who have never experienced first-hand the many benefits of the human-animal bond can consult a wide array of research that effectively makes the point. Here are only a few examples:

Cardiovascular studies show that pet owners have lower blood pressure and lower triglyceride levels.

Clinical studies indicate that abused children who had a strong human-animal bond with a pet in childhood show more resilience in adulthood. In fact, when explaining their ability to cope with the emotional results of their abuse, they often name their childhood pet as their most important source of support during the critical period.

Studies of animal-assisted therapy (which, incidentally, dates back at least to the 18th century) have proven repeatedly that companion animals are extremely therapeutic, and that even the presence of a non-companion animal calms stress and decreases recovery time in patients of all ages.

There is clearly something special about the positive bond that can be forged between people and their pets, and everyone involved is elevated by the relationship. The animal is elevated because it receives physical benefits from its human companion that it couldn't provide for itself, and because it gives back in the amazing ways we've already talked about. The human is elevated by the opportunity to unselfishly care for a less self-sufficient living thing, and by the increase in personal well-being.

Leashes by Gypsy RockNow, I hate to bring the level of this conversation down, but it's time to compare the positive and elevating bond that forms between humans and their animal pets to a very different relationship recently reported by BBC News.

In case you didn't click on the link, let me summarize:

A young couple in England was recently refused passage on a public bus because the 25-year-old male was leading his 19-year-old girlfriend by a dog leash, as is apparently the couple's habit.

The indignant young man, a Mr. Graves, indicated that although he is used to strange looks and comments, he never expected such treatment from the public transportation system. The couple agreed that the leash was "a sign of trust." According to the young lady, a Miss Maltby, previous attempts to employ her idea of being led by the collar prompted earlier boyfriends to brand her a "weirdo."

Mr. Graves proudly describes his pet/partner as very "animal like" and he does everything for her in view of the fact that, in his words, "You wouldn't expect your cat or dog to do the washing up or cleaning round the house."

The obvious question for this couple is, "Who exactly is elevated by this relationship?"  But on video, the apparently nonplussed BBC interviewer could only think to say, "I've never met a man who has a pet girl before."

One can only wonder whether having a real dog might help this couple learn how elevating and fulfilling an actual human-animal bond can be.

Tags: relationships, animal assisted therapy, family pets, health benefits pets

Single Mothers and Homelessness

Posted on Mon, Jan 21, 2008 @ 04:08 PM
More of the fallout from failed individual and community relationships

Image by Beth RankinAs mentioned in the last post, "rather than stigmatizing or ostracizing, research that points out the importance of  family relationships should inspire a single mother's surrounding community to do just thatsurround, encourage, help."

Craig's list, a Web site that functions in much the same way as the once-popular "classified" sections in local newspapers, published the following advertisement this week:

"I am a single mother of 2 who at the moment has no place to live. I am just starting to try to get back on my feet and I need a place to live ASAP! We are quiet and clean and keep mostly to ourselves. I do not drink or do drugs, have a clean criminal record, not even one little parking ticket. I am not able to pay rent but I do work and once I get on my feet will be more than happy to pay rent. I have excellent personal references. Please, if you or someone you know has a room, a guest house or whatever please help us!"

Such situations are becoming far too common, an indication that individuals and communities still have a long way to go to effectively surround, encourage and help those in need.

This recent video from KNBC, Los Angeles, further describes the problem.

Of course, while most would love to "surround, encourage and help" single mothers, it can be difficult for some to determine how best to do this. One important step anyone can take (and everyone in the community should) is to learn more about the issues single moms and their families face. Initially, their most pressing need may be that of learning about and making use of public resources.

With this in mind, single mom Lindsay Blanche has established a valuable tool for single mothers, as well as for those friends, family and neighbors who would surround, encourage and help them. Grants for Single Mothers is an educational resource focused on helping single moms locate financial aid, scholarship resources, food and housing programs, parenting advice, and related information.

Because the health and well-being of communities is an important priority for each of us, however, it would be a mistake to assume Blanche's Web site is only for single moms. For everyone else it is a wonderful resource for answering the question, "How can I help the single mothers I know?"

Tags: homeless single mothers

The Single Parent Controversy

Posted on Fri, Jan 18, 2008 @ 04:10 PM
Does family research stigmatize single mothers and their children?

Image by Lynn Ytap FlickrBefore we finish talking about singles, it seems appropriate to consider the particular challenges of single parents. If I revert to using the term "single mothers" more often than not, it's only because single parents tend to be mothers more often than not.

The most common accusations made against "family restorationists"  have to do with political and economic concerns. For instance, in an essay titled "Politics of Family Structure," author and family scholar Arlene Skolnik says thatalthough there are some "family restorationists" who aren't trying to introduce drastic legislationmost of them:

use a language of moral failure and cultural decline to account for family change. They all seek to revive the stigma that used to surround divorce and single motherhood. To change the cultural climate, they call for government and media campaigns like those that have been successful against smoking and drinking. They also propose a number of policy changes, including making divorce harder, or even outlawing it, for parents with minor children. Some have also advocated restrictions on AFDC [Aid for Dependent Children] benefits to unmarried mothers.

The well-being of American children should be an urgent concern of policymakers. Focusing our national attention on the needs and problems of families raising children could be enormously positive. However, the current family structure crusade is playing by the family values scripts of the l980's. The result is that the issue is framed, "Are you for or against the two-parent family?" This approach paints critics into an anti-family corner. This approach of stigmatizing single parents, cutting off welfare, and restricting access to divorce may harm large numbers of children and deepen the very social ills they are trying to remedy.

If we're honest with ourselves, we must admit that trying to untangle the economic and political threads of the problem enough to attempt to legislate human relationships is futile. But not all family restorationists are seeking to stigmatize single mothers or attempting to influence legislation. The strength of human relationships is determined by the interactions of individuals, not by government institutions.

Image  by Bart (Cayusa) FlickrWhy must acknowledging that fathers are important in their children's lives stigmatize single mothers? What it should do, is inform the entire community about the special  challenges single mothers face, and encourage others to form relationships  beyond nuclear family lines within their communities. It should also encourage good fathers to spend quality time with their children so mothers don't bear the full responsibility alone. 

If it helps motivate those in troubled marriages to strengthen their relationships and revive the love they once had, that also has to be a good thing for each parent as well as for their children. After all, personal growth is constructive, and restoring relationships requires a deep level of personal growth for both partners because there is rarely only one person at fault when relationships break down. However, no thinking person would suggest that a mother should remain in a violent or abusive relationship just so her children can have a father. 

Rather than stigmatizing or ostracizing, research that points out the importance of  family relationships should inspire a single mother's surrounding community to do just thatsurround, encourage, help. And there are many practical ways each of us can participate, without pushing legislation or having any official standing. Here are some. But there are certainly more.

Tags: family relationships, divorce, single mothers, single parents, Singles

Going Solo

Posted on Thu, Jan 17, 2008 @ 04:12 PM
Living the Single Life
Katie Couric and Condoleezza Rice

Continuing on from yesterday’s post, Bella DePaulo, author of Singled Out, has made it clear that contrary to popular stereotypes, singles do have family. But what about a life? Surely singles don’t have as many commitments or extracurricular demands as couples do—so doesn’t that mean their lives must be unfulfilling and drab? Don’t they sit by the phone waiting for someone to call and relieve the unrelenting boredom of their existence?

These are further steroptypes that, DePaulo says, are hard to break. But it doesn’t matter whether singles have large families, many friends, numerous commitments or none of these things—busy or not, they are likely to be seen by others as not having a fulfilling life. One compelling example DePaulo uses to make this point is that of the 66th Secretary of State of the United States, Dr. Condoleezza Rice. DePaulo isn’t saying that singles need to aspire to Rice’s profile in order to have a life. In fact, she makes the point that from the perspective of some observers, even such a profile isn’t enough to constitute a real “life” for a single person.

On CNN’s Larry King Live, December 11, 2002, Bob Woodward told viewers that Rice is such a key figure in the Bush administration that “she has no personal life. She is in the White House or with the president continuously.”

But what if Rice feels like part of the Bush family? Perhaps all those weekends she spends at Camp David or at the Texas ranch with the Bush family are down-time—family time—a pleasant and fulfilling part of her personal life. It’s certainly possible.

Nevertheless DePaulo concedes, let’s assume becoming only the second woman ever to be named as Secretary of State is grounds for being considered life-less and ask what it would take for onlookers to admit Rice might have a personal life beyond the White House. Perhaps having a life can be defined as “pursuing personal interests”?

If so, there is much to be gleaned about Rice’s interests from interviews and media stories.

For starters, she likes to read, travel, watch sports, play tennis and tinkle the ivories on her Steinway piano—a hobby she seems to be rather good at. At least, the standing ovation she received from the audience at Constitution Hall gave some indication her duet with Yo-Yo Ma wasn’t a complete failure.

Rice, who received her BA degree at the age of 19, holds a doctorate in International Studies, has authored or co-authored several books, served on numerous boards, and earned two of the highest teaching awards while on staff at Stanford University. She has also posed for Vogue magazine. If it’s possible to describe anyone’s existence as being, in DePaulo’s words, “filled with friendship and passion and marvelously developed talents and stunning achievements,” Condoleezza Rice’s life certainly qualifies, and her example thereafter remains the highlight of Singled Out.

Unfortunately, DePaulo’s well-taken point that singles do have fulfilling lives, wonderful families and rich relationships and that they make vital contributions to their communities is unnecessarily diminished by the fact that she fails to resist the urge to treat couples as superciliously as she accuses them of treating singles.

Says DePaulo, “When couples have children, they often settle into the comfort and privacy of their own home. They might slip out now and then for a baseball game or a pizza, but like the cliché says, the home is their castle. With a moat around it. They practice what I see as intensive nuclearity. They act as a tight, self-contained unit.”

I admit I’m coupled with children, but we rarely have the opportunity to settle into the “comfort and privacy” of our own home. There is no moat, and each member of our household is out connecting with numerous others of varying ages and situations for the larger part of almost every day. We’ve had, at various times in the life of our “intensively nuclear” family, elderly people, young adults and teens living in our household who were not genetically related to us. And we aren’t unusual among our friends.

Several of DePaulo’s other assertions about the motivations and beliefs of couples and nuclear families are similarly wide of the mark, which is regrettable because many of the people who could benefit from her main point will have difficulty getting past some of the stereotypes and straw couples she erects along the way.

Still, those who do manage to keep track of who is stereotyping whom in Singled Out will at least take away the understanding that a strong community requires interactive relationships across all generations and family situations. There will always be singles and there will always be couples, but all are connected to the larger social fabric by family ties as well as ties of friendship. All of these relationships are important and in need of nurturing. Sadly, despite all intentions and potential to the contrary, the approach taken in Singled Out seems more likely to further polarize these groups than to reconcile them.

Tags: Condoleezza Rice, Singles, contentment, couples, marriage

Feeling Single but Seeing Double

Posted on Sun, Jan 13, 2008 @ 04:14 PM
Do people always go two by two?

Singled  Out, by Bella De Paulo, PhDAs mentioned in the last post, break-up season should be in full swing right about now. So what’s a single person to do? Rely on married friends to find them a new dating prospect? Find a hobby? Take a class? Bury themselves in their work?

These questions bring to mind a book by Bella DePaulo, PhD, titled: Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. Published just over a year ago, DePaulo’s book uses humor and sometimes stinging sarcasm to explain (to singles as well as couples) that singles can be just as happy as their married friends.

What? A post about singles on a family blog? Singles don’t have families, do they?

“To be stereotyped is to be prejudged,” DePaulo reminds us. “Tell new acquaintances that you are single and often they think they already know quite a lot about you. They understand your emotions: You are miserable and lonely and envious of couples. They know what motivates you: More than anything else in the world, you want to become coupled. If you are a single person of a certain age, they also know why you are not coupled: You are commitment-phobic, or too picky, or have baggage. . . . From knowing nothing more about you than your status as a single person, other people sometimes think they already know all about your family: You don’t have one. They also know about the important person or persons in your life: You don’t have anyone. In fact, they know all about your life: You don’t have a life.”

Image by David BlaikieSome of DePaulo’s basic accusations may have more merit than the average “coupled” person would like to admit. After all, we barely blink when we see a book titled, If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single? We may even buy it as a gift for one of our single friends. But, DePaulo makes the tongue-in-cheek proposal, what if the title was: If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Married? Would we understand the implications then?

And what if government entities also recognized that single people have relationships and lead productive lives? What if singles, like couples, could leave their Social Security benefits to the person who is most important to them, whether that’s their elderly mother or their brand new nephew? What if, instead of feeling sorry for them, others recognized their ability to contribute as productively to the family community as anyone else?

Fortunately, DePaulo stands ready to shatter every preconceived notion anyone may have of single life. “I am happy,” she says, “I have a life, and there is no way I will grow old alone (a matter that has little to do with having a serious coupled relationship or even living by yourself).” One has to concede she’s right here. If you’re the type of person who reaches out to build relationships, you may find yourself surrounded by friends even when you’re single. These people will not die alone—whether they ever get married or not. Alternatively, the reclusive couple rarely dies in each others’ arms. One of the two goes first—statistically this is usually the husband—and the second is left to die completely alone, not having nurtured the friendships that will stand by them at the end.

DePaulo contends, “The conventional wisdom about people who are single is a mythology, a gloss. It is not an accurate description of the textured and varied lives of real people who are single.”

Though readers may find areas of disagreement and some of her assertions don't quite seem to come from the happy place DePaulo insists she's in, it’s difficult to argue with the over-arching point. Singles can live happily ever after, all the while enjoying fulfilling relationships and accomplishing great things on the way.

Image by  Dave McKeagueFortunately DePaulo makes some (though not enough) qualifications. “I’m not against coupling," she insists. "Coupling itself . . . is in fact timeless. The kind of interest that people have in coupling cannot be manufactured from whole cloth the way a sudden intense desire for a Cabbage Patch doll can be. It is based on something real. So, my problem is not with our current interest in coupling or our valuing it.”

Instead, says DePaulo, her problem is with society’s tendency to undervalue the contributions and potential of singles, and to under-define terms like “family.”

For example, while the conventional question, “Do you have a family?” is often proposed in order to find out whether an adult is married with children, DePaulo remarks that “There are, of course, other meanings of family.” This leads her to question why we don’t often hear responses like: “Oh, yes, I have a family: I have a mother and father.” Or perhaps, “Yes, I have a brother, a sister, three cousins, a grandmother an uncle and two aunts.”

When we realize that sibling relationships are some of the longest-standing relationships any of us will ever have in our lives, and that there are long-time friends with whom we may have sibling-like relationships, we understand that the term “family” is meant to have implications that do not leave singles out in the cold.

Tags: Singles, couples, marriage, family, dating, siblings Bella DePaulo

National Break-Up Season

Posted on Thu, Jan 10, 2008 @ 04:21 PM
Four out of ten people likely to think twice about their relationships

Image by Khalid KhalilAccording to a new dating study by Yahoo!, the period from December to Valentine’s day should be known as "National Break-Up Season." Far from a scientific study, the report suggests that the promise of a new year often leads people to reassess their relationships as they think about the future.

Says Yahoo!, "The two primary reasons leading to a break-up were not having a shared view of the future with a partner (48 percent) and feeling unfulfilled or in a rut (41 percent)."  Most often, the report says, it's the more mature daters (aged 30-39) who reconsider their relationships on the basis of conflicting views and goals.

While this study may not present any earth-shattering revelations, there is no question that the two reasons for break-up offered by Yahoo! are often cited by those who are unhappy in relationships, whether they are simply dating or already married. 

Of course, that's what dating is about, isn't it?  People obviously need to spend time together to discover whether their views of the future are compatible enough to ensure they can commit to working together toward a common goal for the rest of their lives. There's no surprise that the lack of a common vision leads to break-up during the dating phase, or that the lack of a common vision would lead to a stale dating relationship that is unfulfilling or "in a rut."

Image by SpiralzWhat is a surprise, however, is that it happens so often during the marriage phase. Apparently, a vital discovery that should be made while dating often goes undetected until the commitment has been made and rings exchanged. 

Why is this such a common mistake?  Many blame it on the fact that Western society and culture idealizes romantic bliss. But is the perfect relationship simply a fantasy, or is it possible to attain? And what is a perfect relationship?

This question brings to mind the recent post entitled "Doing Well versus Feeling Good: The Self Esteem Debate."  If "doing well" is more important than just "feeling good" on an individual basis, what happens when this same concept is applied to each human connection: marriage, family, community and beyond? Could doing well be more important then feeling good when defining the perfect relationship?

For instance, beginning with the connection between just two people who feel some initial attraction, which comes first? Working together toward a common goal?  Or feeling fulfilled? Learning about the common vision you share with that other person (a "doing" aspect)? Or feeling romantic?

Just as the right kind of self-esteem comes from working through problems and mastering them, maybe the right kind of relationships don't just happen automatically. Maybe instead of giving up on a marriage when it doesn't live up to ideals of Hollywood romance, couples could find fulfillment in working through and mastering their problems, and from coming out on the other side of them with a higher regard for the marriage and their love for one another.

Of course it takes two. It's very difficult to make a marriage when only one partner is doing the work. So perhaps a "Break-Up Season" where dating couples take a hard look at their ability to work through problems together is not a bad idea.  Better to do it during the dating phase than exchange the rings and find only one is willing to work during marriage.

Tags: marriage, dating, David H. Olsen, National Break-up Season

From Self-Esteem to Eating Disorders

Posted on Mon, Jan 07, 2008 @ 04:23 PM
Is a daughter's eating behavior completely out of her parents' hands?

Family  Dinner in Siegen by Kai HendrySince we were discussing self-esteem in the last post, it might be appropriate to explore some of the problems that are sometimes believed to spring from low levels of it. Could there actually be deeper origins to some of these problems?  Maybe some of them result not so much from low self-esteem itself, as from the same missing family relationships that cause the symptoms popularly identified as low self-esteem?

For example, eating disorders are popularly believed to be the result of obsessing over a poor body image. Teen girls, it is said, compare themselves to unrealistically perfect media images, and find themselves compelled to meet these idealsto the point that they become anorexic or bulimic.

Though one can't completely discount the negative impact of unrealistic media images, there are other considerations that could move society even closer to uncovering the basis of eating disorders. 

Interestingly, one such consideration comes to light in a study published this month in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, which suggests that girls who eat regular meals with their families have fewer eating disorders.

This longitudinal study conducted over a five-year period concluded that "it is important to help families find more ways to increase the frequency of family meals given the high prevalence of unhealthy weight control practices and other disordered eating behaviors in the present study and other studies."  Going even further, the researchers pointed out that several other studies suggest there are "additional benefits of family meals including improved dietary intake, lower levels of substance use, and higher levels of psychosocial well-being."

Image by Vox EfxBut waitthese are many of the same factors that improve for girls when their fathers are involved in their lives. Involved fathers presumably eat family meals with their daughters. Is it possible that the importance of this study's finding goes beyond the meal itself to an overarching set of family values? 

Experts such as Wake Forest University's Linda Nielsen say that daughters with involved fathers tend to have more confidence, and are less likely to be promiscuous.  Promiscuity, of course, is one way of seeking confirmation that one is attractive.  Eating disorders are another.

In the light of these considerations it's difficult to argue with the researchers in this longitudinal study, who urge, "The high prevalence of disordered eating behaviors among adolescent girls and the protective role of family meals suggest a need for interventions aimed at promoting family meals."

Tags: family relationships, family meals, fathers and daughters

Doing Well Versus Feeling Good: The Self-Esteem Debate

Posted on Thu, Jan 03, 2008 @ 04:25 PM
Why the self-esteem movement has not succeeded in alleviating depression and unhappiness.

Image by Crystl Parents and teachers in Western nations have been interested in building self-esteem in children for nearly half a century.

Mind youit isn't as though the concept of self-esteem wasn't around before the 1960's. In fact, a Harvard psychologist named William James (brother of novelist Henry James) developed a formula for it as early as 1890. Earlier definitions of self-esteem, however, bear little resemblance to recently popular versions.  James suggested that "our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do. It is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities;" and he went so far as to portray this ratio as a literal fraction. 

It would be nearly three quarters of a century before the concept was revisited with any significant interest by another psychologist. But even Stanley Image by Colleen and Danny  BinkleyCoopersmith, who proposed in 1967 that building self-esteem was a child-rearing necessity, underscored that the parents of children with high self-esteem were the kind who set clear limits and defined high standards of behavior, modeling these by their own examples.

Somewhere in intervening years, however, the "doing well" aspect of building self-esteem seemed gradually to lose ground to the "feeling good" part of the message.

This critical distinction is emphasized by psychologist Martin Seligman in his 1995 book, The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience.

"Armies of American teachers, along with American parents, are straining to bolster children's self-esteem," says Seligman. "That sounds innocuous enough, but the way they do it often erodes children's sense of worth. By emphasizing how a child feels, at the expense of what the child doesmastery, persistence, overcoming frustration and boredom, and meeting challengeparents and teachers are making this generation of children more vulnerable to depression." 

How could it be that well-meaning attempts to shield children from feeling bad could actually result in more depression rather than less?

The most obvious pitfall lies in dishonesty. It should go without saying that encouragement is a good thing. Praise, when merited, can be a wonderful tool for reinforcing positive action. But children see through empty praise, however well-meaning it is, and on the basis of such deceit can begin to mistrust even deserved praise.

Another pitfall lies in the belief that children must be protected from failure and the resulting bad feelingsboth of which are necessary steps in the learning process. "In order for your child to experience mastery," Seligman insists, "it is necessary for him to fail, to feel bad, and to try again repeatedly until success occurs. None of these steps can be circumvented. Failure and feeling bad are necessary building blocks for ultimate success and feeling good."

Image by Colleen and Danny  BinkleyHe then points to a 1990 California report titled "Toward a State of Esteem" which claims that poor self-esteem is the cause of such ills as academic failure, drug use, teenage pregnancy and dependence on welfare. Having made this assessment, however, the report could only be vague when recommending solutions. Why? Seligman suggests that they had no choice because "there is no effective technology for teaching feeling good which does not first teach doing well. Feelings of self-esteem in particular, and happiness in general, develop as side effectsof mastering challenges, working successfully, overcoming frustration and boredom and winning. The feeling of self-esteem is a byproduct of doing well."

Seligman's conclusion is that similar approaches to that of the 1990 California report will always have the cart before the horse. "If we, as parents and teachers, promote the doing-well side of self-esteem, the feeling-good side, which cannot be taught directly, will follow. What California (and every state) needs is not children who are encouraged to feel good, but children who are taught the skills of doing wellhow to study, how to avoid pregnancy, drugs, and gangs, and how to get off welfare."

These skills, of course, spring from others that are foundational to doing well, and they are most effectively taught by a child's earliest role models: his own engaged parents.

Tags: depression, failure, Martin Seligman, overcoming frustration, self-esteem movement, Stanley Coopersmith, William James