Self Esteem Junk Food

I know a creative child. He writes short stories, builds bows and arrows from things he finds on the street, makes pottery and writes poetry.  So, when he asked me: “Rabbi, what should I put in my first YouTube video”? I was surprised.

I asked and discovered that he wanted to showcase….something, something that a lot of people will see. He’s just not sure what it is. It was clear from our conversation that this was not about him displaying a specific talent to a broader public, but a quest for fame.

At that moment, I realized how different his world is from mine.  Here’s a talented, creative kid whose first thought is not showing off a specific talent or gift (which he clearly has), but rather, what is going to interest other people. And not others like friends and family, but strangers: “Likes”, “views”, “followers”. 

In my childhood, I also wanted to be famous. But I believe the difference lies in that I used to connect fame with a real talent or skill. For example, when I was 12, I wanted to be a star tennis player, but I accepted that to get there would require thousands of hours of practice and training. Fame was the outgrowth, a consequence of doing something I loved. I wanted to be acknowledged on the grandest of scales for a skill that I had worked hard to develop and refine.

This child’s question is reminiscent of the American Idol contestants whose auditions are broadcast because they are so horrid and ridiculous. They are laughed at and ridiculed, but willingly subject themselves to such treatment so that they can enjoy their 15 seconds of embarrassment, I mean, fame.

This child, it seems, wants those ’15 seconds’ as well and he doesn’t care if they are connected to a talent that he has or something else that “people want to see”.

I don’t think he is unique in this regard. In a world where everything of import seems to happen on the most public of stages, he wants to be important as well.

As a father and a therapist, I ask myself: What does this say about self-esteem? What does it say about the self-regard of a generation that is so obsessed with the empty calories of short lived “viral” notoriety that their first thoughts are not: “What am I good at”? but rather, “what do others want to see”?

My self-esteem is never generated in relation to others. That leads to arrogance (when I see myself as superior) or diminishment (when I see myself as inferior).  So, how do we help our children develop self-esteem when they seem to value the approval of virtual strangers above all else? Should we try and convince them of how futile that endeavor is? Should we discourage their fame seeking?

I don’t think that’s necessary.

Human beings need self-esteem like they need food and water.

Without it, they start to wither up and die a slow, painful death. The junk food calories of YouTube fame will never satiate this real need.  So, we don’t have to worry about it… unless, they don’t get that real need met from a legitimate source. People that have never had a healthy, substantial meal satiate their appetite, will continue to seek out the empty calories of junk food. After all, it tastes good and seems to do the trick, at least temporarily.

In today’s world, because “junk food” calories are so tantalizingly available on every social network and online platform, we need to make sure that we are providing children with healthy, balanced meals.  Nourishment that will fill their need so that they can eventually distinguish between what is real and what simply looks good. Between what provides the substantial feeling that “I matter” and what offers a quick jolt of pleasure and an even faster crash into the void of desperation.

Gratefully, these tools and techniques are accessible and available. Self-esteem, like anything else important requires time and patience to develop and here are 5 tools to begin:

  1. Develop your relationship with your child by being totally present and openly listening to him with full attention. Don’t multitask while doing so and if you can’t give your full attention at that moment, let him know that you want to and will be able to in ____ minutes.


  1. Be open and “real” with her. This does NOT mean being childish, but It does mean being “child- like”, in taking off the mask. Try and strip away some of the adult posturing and pretense and be a human being. A relationship can only exist between two authentic selves.


  1. Allow him to express his strongest feelings without judging, evaluating or offering solutions. You do not need to “agree” with him and this does not give him a green light to do or say whatever he wants to someone or about someone. Still, as a parent you can acknowledge the depth of his emotional experience.


  1. Create opportunities for growth and success. Draw attention to the accomplishment of small steps forward (without evaluating), praise effort and encourage learning and growth from setbacks.


  1. Create opportunities for her to impact others. Visit hospitals, teach a skill, prepare food, etc. Allow her to experience the feeling of making a difference in someone else’s life.


As light is inherently more powerful than darkness, real self-esteem is more nourishing than junk food fame. As parents and leaders, it is our job to give children the opportunity to experience it and the empty calories will look a lot less appetizing.