“You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself!”

If you are around my age, you probably heard those words pretty often when you were a kid. I certainly did!

I could be wrong, but I am under the impression that parents don’t use those words as much nowadays. Do you think that would be a good thing? or a bad thing?

I think that some parents have become convinced that the most important thing they can do for their kids is to build their self-esteem. I suppose that it is logical that if one is ashamed of oneself, one’s self-esteem is probably not very high. So, in the interest of protecting and promoting self-esteem, maybe we should not tell our kids that they should be ashamed.

But I have some issues with the self-esteem movement. Let’s think about it for a few minutes.

Most of us, I think, would agree that we really don’t want our kids to have a blanket “I-feel-good-about-myself” attitude no matter what.

We would probably all be horrified if one of our children said, “I stole candy at the store and I’m proud of it;” or “I hurt that scrawny little kid pretty bad and I’m happy about it;” or “I cheated on that test and made 100 and I feel really good about it.”

But many of us can’t seem to understand that when we try to raise the self-esteem of our kids by painting with a broad brush, we can unwittingly engender just such horrific attitudes.

Do we really want our kids to feel great about themselves, no matter what? No, not if we really care about them. And not if we know what’s good for them. And not if we want the end result of our child-rearing to be  something better than the production of little monsters.

Does that mean we need to browbeat, scream at, bash and ridicule our kids until they realize what disgusting, worthless, scummy little worms they really are?

Hmmmm… Doesn’t sound quite right, does it?

So how do we find God’s balance in this self-esteem thing?

I think we can find it better if we move our focus from esteeming ourselves as creatures to esteeming Christ as Creator.

If we think more highly of Him and less highly of ourselves, we will be in a position to develop a healthy kind of confidence about life instead of the unhealthy stuff that the self-esteem movement can lead to. Really good things can happen to us and to our kids when we all get a proper understanding of Who Christ is.  When we understand Him better, we will be able to have a proper understanding of who we are and what our potential is in Him.

When we attempt to build our children’s self esteem regardless of their behavior, we run the risk of two opposite, but equally disastrous, problems.

On the one hand, many kids will believe that they really are the most wonderful, wise, gifted, able, skilled, smart, clever, beautiful, virtuous people who have ever walked the earth. They develop monstrous egos. They become obnoxiously arrogant. They feel genuinely superior to everyone else. That kind of attitude will, of course, wreak havoc on their relationships (outside the blind adoration of doting parents and perhaps grandparents).

Think about it. Do you really enjoy hanging out with egotistical, arrogant, I-can-do-no-wrong, I’m-better-than-everybody-else-I-ever-met type people? They are disgusting!

We are doing our kids no favors when we build gargantuan strongholds of self-esteem in their little minds, but leave the lessons of humility somewhere back there in the dust.

The other disastrous result of trying too valiantly to build self-esteem, at all costs, happens because some kids know better. We can tell them that they are the best at everything. But they know the truth. They know that there are people who are smarter, more athletic, more gifted, etc. than they are. So when we keep heaping on the praise and adulation, they think, “It’s all lies.” And then when the time comes for some honest, genuine encouragement, they won’t receive that either.

At that point, all our attempts to build their self-esteem will have the exact opposite effect from that which we had intended. Out kids will then feel totally useless, worthless, and inept. And with what they perceive to be our lies (nobly intended) or our stupidity (our inability to recognize their inability) they have learned that they simply cannot trust us. Our encouragement is rendered powerless.

I suggest that we shift our emphasis from building self-esteem to building a proper Biblical perspective of who our kids really are.

What will that mean?

It will mean lots of good stuff. Some of it you might think of as “negative” and some of it as “positive.” (In truth, it’s all positive.)

On the “negative” side…

We will teach our kids that they are not perfect. That they, like us and like every other person who has ever lived, have sinned. We will teach them that their sin really is horrible and destructive–not just a trifle.  We will teach them that when they sin that they disappoint us and God. We will teach them that pride and selfishness and arrogance and egotism are disgusting and obnoxious. And we will do our best to help them identify these things when they pop up in their lives. And we will teach them that, yes, there really are times when they should be ashamed of themselves. If they do not listen, we will administer appropriate discipline to get their attention. (I recommend intense, but quiet, eye-to-eye conversation; firm squeezes on their trapezius muscle [the pressure is usually enough when their eyes get big and their mouth drops open]; and, when they are young enough, spankings effective enough to really get their attention [but not overdone–pain, not damage].) We will also teach them that there really are lots of people who can do lots of things better than we or they can.

On the “positive” side…

We will teach our kids that they are created in the image of God. That they exist because God chose to give them life. We will teach them that He made them uniquely wonderful.  We will teach them that whatever they have done, if they will but trust Jesus and what He did for them on the cross, they have been forgiven. We will teach them to forget what lies behind and reach out to the high calling of God for the fantastic future He has planned for them. We will teach them that God has an incredibly thrilling and exciting plan for their lives if they are willing to live His way. We will teach them to be happy when others do things better than they can, in the knowledge that God has made everyone beautifully and uniquely special. We will teach them that God will enable them to do whatever they need to be able to do to glorify Him, to find joy and meaning and peace in life, and to be genuinely happy. We will teach them that their power and gifts and ability and talents and skills are from God, and that their attitude should be one of humility and gratitude, not pride, about these things. We will teach them that when they fail (and they will fail) that neither God nor we will ever stop loving them and that every moment is an opportunity for a fresh start.

Meanwhile, we can also help them by discussing the behavior of other people who have been deceived by the self-esteem movement. We can point out how unpleasant it is when other kids are arrogant and self-centered. And we can point out how sad it is when other kids don’t realize how special they are in God’s sight.

At that point, maybe we could say, “You see what that kid is doing? You see how he is behaving? He should be ashamed of himself, don’t you think?”

And when they blow it, until they repent, we might lovingly say, “Son, I’m ashamed of what you did. And you should be ashamed of yourself. God is not happy with that kind of behavior.”

When they repent, we should say, “God has forgiven you, and so have I. God loves you more than you realize, and so do I. Now… don’t let it happen again!”

So is shame a bad thing? Sometimes. It depends on what we are ashamed of!

Have you sinned? Be ashamed! Have your kids sinned? Teach them to be ashamed! If we will let Him, God will use that shame to drive us closer to Him and to make us more like Jesus as we eschew sin, which is so shameful, and embrace His righteousness!

Stay in the battle!

Steve Hall