Self Esteem and Children

March 30th, 2022 by posted in Counseling, Marriage and Family

While the self-esteem movement may seem an age old phenomenon, its beginning is fairly recent. The roots of the self-esteem movement go back to the later nineteenth century with William James among the early psychologist promoters of the importance of loving self. James first used the term self-esteem with a categorical scientific definition in 1892. James clearly defined self-esteem and then went on to develop ideas related to how to increase one’s self-esteem.[1] Wikipedia defines self-esteem as reflecting a person’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth. It is a judgment of oneself as well as an attitude toward the self. Self-esteem encompasses beliefs about oneself, (for example, “I am competent”, “I am worthy”), as well as emotional states, such as triumph, despair, pride, and shame. Dr. James Dobson’s comments, “It is important for parents to build up their child’s self-esteem: providing a safe, loving, accepting environment will reassure your child and teach him that, with support, he can be or do anything”, resonates with those committed to this psychological theory of a child’s (person’s) self-worth, self-value, self-esteem.

Recent research over the past ten years has proven this theory to be almost completely reversed. Dr. Albert Mohler, in his blog as far back as February 16, 2007, states that the movement has backfired and quotes research to that end. “But a growing body of research–and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system–strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.”[2]

I quote this article anecdotally for our experience is not the determining factor in our belief. Our sure foundation is in the Scripture and the living Word of God. In the book, Successful Christian Parenting, Dr. John MacArthur’s chapter, “Understanding Your Child’s Greatest Need”, gives the sound and concise biblical truth regarding anthropology in the space. Dr. MacArthur asserts that young parents live in fear. They fear, in this context, that their lack of, or poor, or neglectful parenting skills will irreversibly harm their child throughout his/her development. In contrast to that thinking, he gives us both the indicative and the imperative with regards to our true image and the commands to raise our children.[3]

The Indicative

The indicative “indicates” who we truly are. For example, Ephesians 1-3 explains to the believer who they used to be, and who they now are in Christ. Understanding who we truly are, opposed to who those in the self-esteem movement claim we are, is vital to our understanding of child-rearing. And so, who are these little children? First, they are born in sin (Psalm 51:5). This means that the child is born, “with sinful tendencies and evil desires from the very moment of conception.”[4] In other words, they are vipers in diapers. Second, children are born totally depraved. That is, there is no part of a child that is free from corruption. This doesn’t mean that they will always do the worst thing possible when given the opportunity, but is does mean that they are born with a bent toward sin. Children are not born with innocence but with the selfish desire to please themselves in any way possible. This is why we do not need to teach our children to lie, steal, or be hash with others. These character traits are a part of the nature. They do not worship God, but worship themselves.

And so, if we encourage self-esteem, we are encouraging self-worship. If we encourage self-worship, we are teaching and emboldening a lie, “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:25, ESV).

The Imperative

The imperative is to raise our children in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4, ESV). We tend to be people of fear. We fear who our next president will be. I heard biblical counselor Rick Thomas once state that instead of being kingdom builders (great commission) many have become nation builders, living in fear of POTUS rather than fear of God. We tend to have similar fear with our children rather than remembering,

Therefore, if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Colossians 3:1-3 (ESV).


Self-esteem is not our children’s greatest need. The gospel is our children, and all men’s, greatest need. Why, because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, each has gone his own way, there are none righteous, no – not one. And so, parents must model Christ, use the rod of correction, speak the truth in love, and become the chief evangelist in the lives of their children. They love themselves enough already.

[1] William James, The Principles of Psychology, authorized ed. (New York: Dover Publications, 1918), 315.

[2] Mohler, Albert, “The Self-Esteem Movement Backfires — When Praise is Dangerous”, Blog, (February 16, 2007),

[3] John Macarthur, Successful Christian Parenting, (Thomas Nelson, 1999)

[4] Ibid.

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