A mother who attended a recent presentation during which I described the differences between high self-esteem and humility writes, asking, "What should my husband and I be doing to help our children develop humble hearts?"
Before I answer her question, I need to point out two things: First, humility was the cultural ideal up until the late 1960s, at which point self-esteem theory began to hold sway. Second, the research is clear that people who possess high self-esteem do not have good emotional coping skills, are highly prone to regular episodes of depression and tend toward sociopathy. And that's just the short list. For more on that, Google the work of researchers Roy Baumeister and Jean Twenge.
People who know nothing of the research, when I ask if they'd rather live next door to a person with high self-esteem or a person who is humble and modest, answer the latter. No one given that choice has ever chosen the former, proving my general contention that common sense and social science research generally don't line up.
A good number of people equate humility and modesty with shyness, but that's an error. Humility is simply an attitude of service. The humble person looks for opportunities to be of service to others, from opening doors to volunteering in charitable activities. A person with high self-esteem, which is an entitlement mentality, walks through the opened door without saying, "Thank you."
I gave the above mom the following five tips for assisting her children toward developing a humble social attitude:
1. Train children to serve by assigning them to unpaid chores in and around the home. It is axiomatic, as our fore-parents used to say, that good citizenship begins in the home. Chores should begin at age 3 and increase steadily from there.
2. Train children to pay attention to the needs of others by teaching proper manners. The social graces consist of small, gentle acts that acknowledge respect for others; thus, the gentleman and gentlewoman.
3. When kids act "full of themselves" — when they brag about their accomplishments, for example — let them know that boasting is disrespectful of those who may have tried as hard but did not do as well; that it is an example of bad manners.
4. When a child does well academically, artistically or athletically, low-key praise is certainly appropriate, but consider coupling it with words that cause the child to begin thinking of ways he can use his gifts to better the lives of others.
5. Be a good role model and mentor of humility. Show your kids what being a good neighbor is all about. Be helpful toward those in need and adversity. Make volunteerism a visible aspect of your life and the life of your family.
Because, to paraphrase the inimitable Forrest Gump, humility is as humility does.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his websites, johnrosemond.com and parentguru.com.