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The Myth of Self Acceptance - THE GENIUS IN CHILDREN

The Myth of Self Acceptance

by Rick on May 24, 2016

Collaborate. Create. Contribute, and stop chasing after self acceptance.

In my twenties I was a teacher and dorm-master in a boarding school. Max, one of my 14-year-old advisees, didn’t have friends and kept getting bad grades. It was obvious to everyone—at least the adults—that he had “low self-esteem.” That’s what we called it back in the seventies.

One day, I returned to the dormitory after lunch to find Max in his room. It was a rule at the school that all the students should be out of the dormitory in the afternoon, so the normal thing for a dorm-master to do would have been to send him outside and give him a demerit for breaking a rule.

My instincts told me to do something different. I said, “Would you help me with something?”

A little surprised, he said, “Sure.”

“I notice that you like photography. Would you be my photographer and take slides for my next slide show? I have to give an assembly in about a month.”

“Sure,” he said.

I had several hundred miniature model soldiers of the Napoleonic period, some of them hand-painted. My vision was a slide show to go with a sound track of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

For the next month Max and I identified settings and set up the soldiers, and he took pictures. We were a production team creating a work of art to present to the entire school.

As you can imagine, he changed. The symptoms of “low self-esteem” vanished.

What did I do right? What were the active ingredients in turning this kid around?

Instead of treating his low self-esteem, I treated his loneliness and boredom and uselessness. I had noticed his interest in photography and gave him an opportunity to apply himself to help me out. I gave him an occupation.

The fields of psychology and education still tend to treat low self-esteem not as a symptom, but as the disease itself—rather like diagnosing a high temperature as “fever.” “Greater self-acceptance improves emotional well-being” is the opening line of Dr. Srini Pillay’s article in the Harvard Health Publications of the Harvard Medical School. It’s a myth. He writes:

Many people have low self acceptance. There can be many reasons for this, but one widely accepted theory is that because we develop our self-esteem, in part, from others appreciating us, people with low self-acceptance may have had parents who lacked empathy during their childhood. Consequently, in their adult lives, they may need much stronger affirmation from others than most people do. In other words, ordinary levels of approval do not “move the needle” on their self-esteem.

Of course “approval” doesn’t “move the needle;” causes of low self acceptance don’t necessarily point to cures. Maybe self is a distraction when it comes to mental health. If the presenting problem is feeling bad about yourself, maybe focusing on self will only make things worse. Maybe mental health is a function of three other things: loneliness, boredom and worthlessness? What if we were to look at people as agents of their own wellbeing? What if we were to look not at what is wrong with self, but rather what self needs to do to be less lonely, bored and worthless?  Maybe the steps toward feeling better about yourself are: forget about yourself, find a friend, pursue an interest and make a difference to someone else.

Working with children and great teachers for 50 years has taught me that, in fact, this is precisely the case. Younger children have shown me that collaborating, creating and contributing are fundamental needs we are born with, rather than “values” to be “instilled.” Addressing loneliness, boredom and worthlessness makes self acceptance a non-issue.

Beth Campbell, a great kindergarten teacher, once said to me: “I see every unused ability in my class as an incipient behavior problem.” Well, many schools are awash in unused abilities. We humans are designed to make friends, collaborate, investigate our environment and generate hypotheses that will help us create marvelous, wonderful, useful things. We are wired to love and even to sacrifice ourselves for others or higher purposes. These are core human abilities; failure to utilize them leads to all sorts of behavior problems and other undesirable outcomes up to and including depression, suicide, murder and tyranny…as well as disappointing test scores. Self is a fabrication, a fiction that is sometimes useful, often distracting, but always a fiction, nonetheless.

self chasing after self self chasing after self

Do you or someone you love seem down, mad, sad, lost or out of sorts? Communicate, collaborate, and find an opportunity to create something that will be valuable to someone else. Whatever you create, you will also create a relationship, and relationships are what our selves are made of.

Your True Self Your True Self


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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura Flores Shaw May 25, 2016 at 12:54 pm

Yes, yes, and yes!

Donna Volpitta May 26, 2016 at 4:31 am

As always, wonderful insight into raising children. One interesting point is the brain science that backs this up. I often tell parents, “self-esteem is not a gift you can give–it needs to be earned because it is a neurochemical response to hard work.”

Kerry Parker May 26, 2016 at 1:59 pm

“…a neurochemical response to hard work”…I like that very much!

jon madian May 27, 2016 at 3:39 am

Rick, this is so clearly stated and such a profoundly important addition to our thinking. Thank you!! Donna & Kerry, please, is it “a neuro-chemical response to hard work,” and also to using one’s talents and having a role or belonging? It seems hard work by itself does bring relief. And when we add being able to use our talents, express our interests, be important to someone else, then life becomes more full, of course.

Rick May 27, 2016 at 7:38 am

Yes. “Love and work” one thing Freud got right.

Maren Schmidt May 27, 2016 at 9:55 am


Thank you for another great lesson about “help me help myself”.
True self-esteem comes from the confidence gained by having skills to express yourself and to help other people.
Help me help myself.

Mary Anderson May 27, 2016 at 5:21 pm

Sometimes it helps just to ask is this adult work or is this something a child can do? If we let them do all that they are capable of and stop serving them and trying to micromanage their every moment, they will be happier and alas so are we.

Ariadne Brill May 30, 2016 at 5:02 am

Rick, this is so wonderful. I really appreciate the message of collaboration, creation and connection. It’s amazing how a focus on involving children meaningfully can turn things around.

Katie McClendon May 30, 2016 at 11:53 am

I agree whole heartedly focusing on self usually magnifies and amplifies ones problems and flaws. However loving others while using your interest and God given talents gives a sense of purpose. That sense of purpose drives out low self esteem and helps to boost ones self identity. It’s wonderful how you recognized that students interest and was able to use that to help him. Rather than nagging him about following the rules and forcing him to play with others. Everyone is an individual and it’s important we tap into that individually. Focusing on individual interest helps grow a strong sense of self without it seeming like a task to change oneself. Great article!!!

Rick May 30, 2016 at 2:39 pm

Thank you, all. At the moment, this is the opener for my next book.

Martin Dutcher June 1, 2016 at 6:12 pm

Rick, very insightful and on the mark from my years of experience with preschoolers through third grade. My project-based classrooms had many opportunities, not requirements, for real-life “work” and everyone participated in some way. Those who might have been labeled “low self-esteem” or “low self-acceptance” were indistinguishable after some time in this kind of accepting environment. Well-written, Rick!😂

Tanya June 4, 2016 at 9:55 am

I totally agree- Its like the old saying “Don’t think about a pink elephant”… You will keep seeing that pink elephant until you find another point of focus and think about that instead. Ponder on the good things. Have a purpose. I even created my website for this purpose thingstodowithkids.co.za

Nan Renzi June 9, 2016 at 11:59 am


Doing Good Together™ June 27, 2016 at 8:02 pm

This is an excellent article and a wise reminder that contribution matters for us all at any age, but instilling the importance of service and helping others at an early age is key to lifelong habits of helping others.
Our website offers tips and resources to make these big-hearted efforts a family habit!

Rick June 28, 2016 at 3:45 am

I am against “instilling” “service.” Children want and need to make a difference to others–we all do. Our job is to act as if they do and support them in their efforts to be valuable to others, their community and their world.

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