LCN Article
Child Rearing: Self-Esteem or Self-Control?

May / June 2004

Jeffrey Fall

Almost all the parents with whom I have ever talked have readily admitted that they could have done a better job of rearing their children. They made plenty of mistakes, and they were frustrated at times with both their own behavior and their children’s. Thinking back over the years, I see many areas where I, too, could have been a better parent.

Why is child rearing so difficult? One obvious answer is that there are so many variables, many of which are beyond our control. Our primary examples in child rearing have been our own parents. Whatever we have experienced from our parents is the pattern that is indelibly stamped on our minds, whether good or bad. The example we have experienced with our own parents, of course, cannot be changed; the past is beyond our control. But none of us are prisoners of the past. With God’s help, we can change the present!

The society we live in also shapes and molds our children. Violence and sexual themes flood the media as never before, and peer pressure in the school system is ever present. Satan broadcasts constantly as the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), and he is ever ready and willing to influence our children.

Even the supposed “experts” on child rearing have strongly disagreed among themselves. Over the last century, we have seen wild swings of the pendulum among those who claim to know the answers.

In 1928, behaviorist J. B. Watson (one of the first so-called “experts” on child rearing) wrote a book that influenced millions. He advised parents, concerning their children: “Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Remember, when you are tempted to pet your child, that mother love is a dangerous instrument: an instrument which may inflict a never healing wound, a wound which may make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an instrument which may wreck your adult son or daughter’s vocational future and their chances for marital happiness.”

This very extreme view of child rearing was popular for a while, but eventually gave way to an attitude of total permissiveness. One of the more extreme examples of permissiveness was illustrated in Summerhill, a book by A. S. Neill. James Dobson, in his book The New Dare to Discipline, summarized some of Neill’s philosophy with the following: “Adults have no right to insist on obedience from their children. Attempts to make the youngsters obey are merely designed to satisfy the adult’s desire for power. There is no excuse for imposing parental wishes on children. They must be free. The best home situation is one where parents and children are equals. A child should be required to do nothing until he chooses to do so.

“Children must not be asked to work at all until they reach eighteen years of age. Parents should not even require them to help with small errands or assist with the chores. We insult them by making them do our menial tasks. Punishment of any kind is strictly forbidden, according to Neill’s philosophy. A parent who spanks his child actually hates him, and his desire to hurt the child results from his own unsatisfied sex life” (p. 129).

With such confusion among the so-called experts, is it any wonder that parents have difficulty knowing the best course in rearing their own children? Society has seen a definite shift in emphasis even in the last 30 years. When my wife and I first began our family in 1975, we observed many children who still seemed to be quite obedient and disciplined. I can remember being invited to the home of friends who had several children, and being impressed by how polite they were and how quickly they responded to their parents. When asked to bring popcorn and cold drinks to the adult guests, their response to their father was an immediate, “Yes, sir!” The hallmark of their child rearing seemed to be “consistent discipline.” Initially we were impressed, but a few years later we began to see signs that this strict obedience was giving way to rebellion in the teenagers.

As my wife and I were preparing for our first child, I decided that it was time to experiment with the “consistent discipline” approach to child rearing. Before our first child was born, I bought a German Shepherd puppy and began to train him with a “consistent discipline” model that I would later describe as authoritarian. Sharp, crisp, clear commands were given, with instant discipline when any infraction occurred. A quick swat, with the hand or a rolled-up newspaper, was the instrument of correction.

When our dog grew to full size, I trained him not to set one paw in my garden, lest he receive an automatic swat. I remember watching him follow behind my little two-year-old niece, who ran into my vegetable garden. Exactly at the edge of the garden he came to a dead stop, as my niece ran among the tomato plants.

I was quite impressed with my “dog training” techniques, until I finally began to see that a lot of consistent discipline and punishment without a lot of love and encouragement produced a family dog without much spirit. He was obedient, but did not show much life or personality—and he did not amount to much of a watchdog, either.

I began to think of this style of child rearing as the “dog training” method, which my wife and I came to see was not the right approach.

In the last 25 years, as society has changed, we have seen the pendulum swing the opposite way. I was reminded of this when a little five-year-old girl got into our preteen son’s briefcase, and sprayed eyeglass cleaner into her eyes. She went screaming to her mother, and the mother’s response was to chide our young son for leaving his briefcase where a child could get into it. The mother gave absolutely no thought to reminding her child that she should respect other people’s property and stay out of their personal items.

A few years ago, I watched a television network “newsmagazine” program, in which cameras were placed in a fourth grade classroom for a few weeks. The result was what you would expect of a class full of children reared without consistent discipline or self-control. The classroom was chaos. Children were standing on their chairs, walking all around the classroom, throwing paper wads at each other and talking constantly. All the while, the teacher would yell a hundred times a day: “Sit down. Be quiet. Stop that; I’m not telling you again.”

Over the last 100 years, society has debated as to what is most important in child rearing: developing self-esteem or self-control? Those who believe self-control is the primary value subscribe to the authoritarian method of child rearing, in which: “The parent’s word is law, not to be questioned, and misconduct brings strict punishment. Authoritarian parents seem aloof from their children, showing little affection or nurturance. Maturity demands are high, and parent-child communication is rather low” (The Developing Person Through the Life Span, Kathleen Berger, p. 287).

Of course, these traits are a mixture of good and bad. The positive aspects are that the parents’ word is law, and is not to be questioned, misconduct brings consistent punishment and the demand for maturity is high. However, this approach also has negative aspects, as parents seem aloof from their children, showing little affection or nurturance, and parent-child communication is rather low. Studies show: “Children whose parents are authoritarian are likely to be obedient but not happy” (ibid., p. 288).

In the early years of our family (which included two girls and two boys, seven years apart), I leaned too much to the authoritarian model, though I have since changed significantly. Fortunately for our children, my wife was more balanced from the beginning, and added a nurturing dimension.

In contrast to those who most value self-control, parents who consider self-esteem the primary goal of child rearing tend to subscribe to the “permissive” method, in which: “The parents make few demands on their children, hiding any impatience they feel. Discipline is lax. Parents are nurturant, accepting and communicating well with offspring. They make few maturity demands because they view themselves as available to help their children but not as responsible for shaping how their offspring turn out” (ibid., p. 287).

Here, again, these traits are a mixture of both good and bad. The positive aspects are that parents are nurturant and accepting, communicate well with their children, and view themselves as available to them. The negative aspects are that these parents make few demands on their children, hiding any impatience they feel, and making few demands of maturity. Such parents do not view themselves as responsible for shaping how their offspring turn out. Amazingly, studies show that: “those whose parents are permissive are likely to be even less happy and… lack self-control” (ibid., p. 288).

So which is the most important goal in child rearing: developing self-esteem or self-control? Is the authoritarian or the permissive model the best method of child rearing? Parents’ answer to this question tends to determine their style of child rearing, and the end of the pendulum to which they swing. Those who consider self-esteem the crucial factor in human development tend to be more permissive in child rearing, while those who are convinced that self-control is the crucial factor in life tend to be much more authoritarian.

A similar question might be phrased: When pouring a cement foundation, which is more important, the cement powder composed of minerals, sand and rock, or the water that mixes into the powder?

In fact, both are needed to make a strong lasting foundation. The proportions of water and cement powder must be properly balanced to have any lasting strength. Too much water and not enough powder will make a very weak foundation. Too much powder and too little water will produce a weak and crumbly foundation. Both are crucial for lasting strength.

As you may well suspect, both self-esteem and self-control are equally essential for a child’s lifelong well-being. Either end of the pendulum of permissiveness and authoritarianism will bring severe deficiencies in child rearing.

Children reared by authoritarian parents—who experience strong self-control and discipline without an equal emphasis on self-esteem nurtured with unconditional love—grow up with a sense of never measuring up. They tend not to venture out of their limited comfort zone. Socially they are self-conscious, and they feel insecure and anxious. They grow into teens and adults who are always trying to prove themselves.

Children reared by more permissive parents tend to have more self-esteem, but self-control is severely lacking. For the rest of their lives, they become slaves to their immediate needs and impulses. They cannot sit still long enough to pay attention in the classroom. Succeeding in college is difficult, and holding down a job for any length of time may be equally difficult. Having never developed the valuable trait of self-control, they have difficulty tolerating any situation that is not immediately pleasant.

Clearly, an imbalance in either self-esteem or self-control is a serious handicap for the rest of a child’s life.

What every child needs is a balance of the two, which we could call loving authority. This would consist of equal parts self-esteem (developed through unconditional love) and self-control (fostered by authoritative discipline and training). Together, these will build a stronger foundation for a child, just as the right balance of cement powder and water bond together into the most stable cement.

In this style of child rearing, “parents set limits and enforce rules, but they are also willing to listen respectively to the child’s requests and questions. Parents make high maturity demands on offspring, communicate well with them and are [nurturing]” (ibid., p. 287).

When you think about it, isn’t this exactly the style of child rearing that we find in the Bible? God sets limits for us, but He is ever willing to listen to us as we come to Him in prayer. He makes high maturity demands for our spiritual growth, but continually communicates with us through His written word, giving us equal amounts of encouragement and forgiveness.

The Need for Teaching Self-Control

When children are reared in a permissive environment, without real control and guidelines, the price is always high. The author of Lord, Why Is My Child a Rebel? had this to say: “Do you want to know the most bitter, resentful children I’ve ever met? The kids whose mothers and fathers failed to provide guidelines and discipline. Children who live in permissive homes have trouble believing their parents really care about them” (p. 45).

Some doubt that children really want guidelines. But, in fact, firm guidelines and restrictions provide a measure of safety and security.

Whenever I drive across my favorite bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, I have no trouble driving in the lane closest to the edge. Although the bridge is more than 265 feet above the water, I gain a sense of safety and security from the guard rail at the edge of the bridge. I have never even come close to hitting the guard rail, but if it were someday removed and you asked me to drive across the bridge in the same right lane, I know I would refuse. More than 265 feet above the water, my sense of safety and security would be totally gone.

The same principle applies to child rearing. Take away the guard rail, and the safe and secure limits are gone; a sense of insecurity and a fear of the unknown are always present. An extreme example would be of a child who has become lost in a crowd, and has absolute total freedom. The child’s fear of danger when facing the unknown is overwhelming.

When children are given solid guidelines over which they cannot cross (like the Golden Gate Bridge rail), those guidelines become internal restraints that we call “self-control.” In children, self-control becomes the restraint (or “guard rail”) exercised upon impulses, emotions, fears and desires. When children cross over the guard rail and receive discipline, they learn that their actions have consequences. Well-disciplined children are a delight to their parents, because they are not constantly trying to cross over the guard rail.

God made this abundantly clear when He inspired the instruction to parents: “Correct your son, and he will give you rest; yes, he will give delight to your soul” (Proverbs 29:17).

Have you ever seen a child who was totally out of control, running and screaming and getting into everything imaginable while the mother was shopping? Any parent who ever experiences this becomes totally “stressed out.”

Years ago my wife would take our four children grocery shopping. The youngest rode in the cart, and the older ones walked along holding onto the side of the cart. Our children were normal rambunctious children, but they came to know that the grocery cart was like the guard rail of the Golden Gate Bridge. Cross that rail, and there were serious consequences.

Well-disciplined children, who are gradually taught self-control from the earliest age, have a foundation laid for a much more successful life. A five-year-old with self-control can sit quietly in class or at services without talking, and can learn much more quickly. The same child as a high school student can sit through classes that are difficult or uninteresting, and “stick it out.” Their prospects for college are that much greater.

When self-disciplined teenagers reach adulthood, they become much more valuable and successful employees. They tend to be on time to work. They handle difficult assignments with far less complaining, and they do not get caught up in office squabbles with people who may rub them the wrong way. In short, they are more successful in their jobs, they keep their jobs longer—and when it is layoff time, they tend to be the last to lose their job, not the first to be fired.

Self-control, taught at an early age through firm guidelines that cannot be violated, results in children and adults who have more control over their emotions and irrational behavior. If parents allow children to express rebellion at the earliest age, they lay the foundation for lifelong temper tantrums.

Years ago, when my wife and I were living in San Francisco while I was attending dental school, we learned of a tragic example of the consequences of lack of self-control. One day, the traffic was particularly heavy across the Oakland Bay Bridge. A hurried driver cut in front of another motorist, who in turn passed him and purposely hit the brakes immediately in front of the first driver. They jockeyed back and forth for position until one finally pulled out a gun, pulled up alongside the other driver, and shot him dead on the spot.

This was an example of a temper tantrum on wheels, which we call “road rage.” It resulted in gunfire, murder and many years in prison. The seeds for such a lack of self-control invariably start in childhood.

God’s Word teaches us to chasten our children “while there is hope” (Proverbs 19:18). In other words, do it in the early years. If you wait until a child is in grade school to begin teaching him the lessons of self-control, it is almost too late for his maximum success in life. It is never too late to try, but any success will be diminished.

Self-control learned in early childhood is also a crucial ingredient in any future marriage relationship. The self-controlled adult is less likely to have an adult temper tantrum and lash out in uncontrollable anger. It is much better to be corrected as a young child for emotional tirades and outbursts, than to face loss of job, marriage failure or even prison time after a loss of control as an adult.

Building Self-Esteem

As we have seen, self-control is only half of what is needed to rear a well-adjusted child and adult. The second vital ingredient in loving authority is the self-esteem that is generated with unconditional love. Real love is unconditional. The Apostle Paul was inspired to write: “Love suffers long and is kind… bears all things.… Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4, 7–8).

“Unconditional love means loving a teenager [or a child of any age], no matter what. No matter what the teenager looks like. No matter what his assets, liabilities and handicaps are. No matter how he acts” (How to Really Love Your Teenager, Ross Campbell, M.D, p. 25).

Of course, parents do not always love a child’s behavior, but we do love the child no matter what. God loves us, even though we make our share of mistakes. Christ loved us and died for us, even while we were going the wrong way. “God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

If we make the huge mistake of only loving our children when they please us, we will rear children who never feel that they “measure up.” Every child makes mistakes, and when love is dependent on being “mistake-free,” they will forever feel like incompetent failures. In the same way, if God only loved us when we were praying, fasting, studying the Bible or serving someone else, we would be unloved most of the time.

Similarly, as adults, if our spouse only loves us when we are doing something pleasing, such as bringing a gift, cooking a nice meal or giving a back rub, we will feel unloved more often than not, and our relationship will suffer. Love must be unconditional!

Scripture admonishes us: “Fathers, do not provoke your children [to anger], lest they be discouraged” (Colossians 3:21). Children need to feel loved, and not just feel corrected. If our only communication with our children is correction, it will not take long for them to become discouraged and feel like an “inadequate unloved failure”—a consequence of the authoritarian style of child rearing.

Many of us parents really do love our children, but have not adequately communicated this to them. Children care more about how we act toward them, than about what we say or what we feel inside. So how can we show love to them in ways that they can readily understand and appreciate?

One vital tool is eye contact. Looking a child in the eyes in a loving manner says, loud and clear: “I value you; you are important to me.” Have you ever felt really close to anyone who would not maintain eye contact with you? Of course not! An inability to maintain eye contact comes across as aloofness and lack of caring. For children’s emotional well-being, they need eye contact from their parents. Children seem to look deeply into others’ eyes, seeing their degree of sincerity and genuineness.

Physical contact is another needed tool for showing love to children. Notice how Christ interacted with young children: “Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to Me…’ And He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them” (Mark 10:13–14, 16).

Almost everyone knows that babies need physical contact to develop properly. But as children enter the teen years, physical contact tends to decrease more and more. Eventually, physical contact in many families occurs only when it is deemed absolutely necessary. At any age, a hand on the shoulder, a pat on the back and an occasional hug are always possible. Appropriate physical contact is a life-long value between parents and children. While children may not appreciate public demonstrations of affection, sincere expressions of approval and encouragement that begin in the early years will still be appreciated in the teenage years.

Undivided attention is also vital. Undivided “focused attention means giving your teenager [or child of any age] full, undivided attention in such a way that he feels truly loved, that he knows he is so valuable in his own right that he warrants your watchfulness, appreciation, and uncompromising regard” (Campbell, p. 31).

My wife has always made this a priority with our children. She has often followed our children into their bedrooms and said, “I want to know what is bothering you. I can tell something is wrong, and I’m going to stay here till you are ready to talk.” Different personality types will respond differently, but all—when they see their parents’ love and concern for their well-being—will appreciate the individual attention, and the lines of communication will open.

How valuable this has been, time and again, as her actions have spoken loud and clear: “Your well-being is more important than my time.” This type of unconditional love lays the foundation for a loving relationship with our spiritual parent, God the Father.

So, back to the question: Which is more important in child rearing: self-esteem or self-control? Both are absolutely vital! A child who feels unloved will not prosper, and a child who is never taught self-control will be severely limited in life: in school, in college, on the job, in marriage—and, spiritually, with God.

Children who receive unconditional love, and are taught obedience through loving authority, have the greatest likelihood of success in life. Authority without unconditional love invariably brings anger and rebellion. When the proper balance is applied, God’s summary of obedience and self-discipline can be realized: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.… And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training [nurture] and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1, 4).