Since the 1980s, educators around the country have been urged to help children build self-esteem to make them feel good about themselves and reduce discipline problems. Now, some researchers are saying a better approach is to cultivate self-compassion in children, to help them accept their struggles and guard against self-absorption.
There’s a burgeoning area of psychological study focused on self-compassion. Kristin Neff, a University of Texas at Austin professor and pioneer in the field, has conducted research [PDF] showing people who are more self-compassionate have less anxiety and depression and tend to be happier.
The problem with focusing on children’s self-esteem, Neff says, is it can give rise to narcissism. Self-esteem is based on comparing yourself with others and making a judgment about being better or worse than others, Neff says. Self-compassion, on the other hand, focuses on the fact that everyone deserves empathy, and it’s OK to make mistakes.
In her book, "Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind," Neff outlines three components of self-compassion: being gentle and understanding with ourselves, recognizing that others struggle too, and putting our struggles into context so they aren’t exaggerated.
Psychologists have been teaching the principles of self-compassion for years and say there’s a growing movement under way in schools to adopt the concepts. From Oakland to Los Angeles, students are getting lessons on self-compassion and mindfulness, a related concept that involves paying attention to one’s senses, thoughts and emotions.
Amy Saltzman has seen a growing interest in the area among educators. As director of the Menlo Park-based Association for Mindfulness in Education, Saltzman is leading a conference on the topic next month and expects about 300 teachers, principals, parents and counselors to attend. She has taught lessons on mindfulness and compassion at schools in Menlo Park, Redwood City, Palo Alto and San Jose, and she says students have learned techniques to focus better on studies and cope with stress.
“I think the downsides of the self-esteem movement are pretty well known,” Saltzman said. “There are kids who are always expecting accolades and trophies. When they get into the workforce, they can’t take constructive criticism. … I think that teaching self-compassion has the positive effects of self-esteem, without the things that make kids fragile and ineffective.”
Last year, Saltzman led a weekly class at Menlo-Atherton High School for 10th-grade students studying remedial English. In the course of eight weeks, Saltzman guided the students through exercises to help them observe their breathing and emotions. The goal, she said, was to help students learn to observe their internal thoughts and feelings with kindness and curiosity, rather than judgment. Some students told her the class helped them control their anger and relax more.
It can be difficult for small children to grasp the concept of self-compassion. Santa Cruz psychologist Ali Kane suggests modeling the behavior and explaining it in simple terms.
If a child makes a mistake and is berating himself or herself, for example, Kane offers this hypothetical response: “Remember last week when you were feeling really upset, and Mommy came and hugged you and sang a song, and you felt better? You can hold yourself in that way and send that same love to yourself.”
Many people are reluctant to be self-compassionate, Neff said, because they are afraid it will lower their standards.
“People confuse compassion with indulgence,” Neff said. “If a parent sees their child doing something harmful, like not studying, a compassionate parent won’t just let the child get away with anything. They can say kindly, ‘Hey, this is harming you. You need to stop and do your homework.’ The idea is to say it in a way that supports the child, instead of tearing them apart.”
The best model for children, she said, is when parents and teachers treat themselves with compassion. In one study [PDF], Neff found a correlation between teenagers’ critical nature and having critical parents.
“I looked at maternal criticism – how critical moms were and how much conflict there was in the family, and how safe and secure the children felt,” Neff said. “It’s only one study, so I don’t want to make too much of it. But it seems to show if parents are critical of their kids, the kids are going to be critical of themselves.”
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