Sharon sat on the bench in the playground, watching her son play. Suddenly, another boy playing near her child picked up a metal bar that he found on the ground, and began to swing it ominously. Terror seized Sharon's heart as she imagined the damage that the bar could do if it accidentally connected with another child's head, perhaps even the swinger's own head. The bar was sharp enough that even unintentional damage would be serious.

Sharon quickly called out to the mothers surrounding her, "Whose child is that? Please tell him to put down that bar right away! It's dangerous." The child's mother turned to her and replied, "Oh, I would never say something like that to him in public. It would be so shameful and damaging to his self-esteem to be criticized before his friends. I'll mention it to him later when we get home."

For a moment, Sharon was speechless. She could not believe that this woman equated a potential risk to her son's self-esteem with the immediate safety and well-being of those around him. Yet she was too insecure to challenge her about it. After a moment, Sharon summoned her son, and told him they were going home.

Several days later, Sharon was still disturbed by the incident in the playground. That night, she called her best friend from college, now a child psychologist, and asked her, "Jennie, am I just missing something here? Or is it possible to be too concerned about self-esteem? Is it possible that our fear of damaging our children's self-esteem can actually prevent us from parenting effectively?"

Jennie laughed, and reassured her, "Sharon, you are not the one missing something here. But many people are learning about parenting from pop psychology, and they are getting the wrong message. As a result, some parents are afraid to act like parents. They are so afraid of damaging their child's self-esteem that they refrain from teaching them how to behave appropriately."

Her conversation with Jennie reassured her, but the troubling incident did not fade from her consciousness completely. In years to come, whenever Sharon felt nervous about taking a firm stance against a child's inappropriate behavior, she would remember what she had witnessed that day at the playground. Then she would remind herself that her concern for her child's self-esteem should not prevent her from fulfilling her role as a parent.

Sharon applied this principle many times. She used it in order to establish a firm bedtime on school-nights, a no snacking on junk food before dinnertime rule, and later when her children were older, a "no unsupervised parties" rule, and a "no accepting rides from any friends who have received their driver's license in the last six months" rule.

Over the years, her various children accused her of being heartless and unfair, of being uptight and un-cool. She would then tell her child firmly what the rule or punishment in the situation was. If her child responded that her behavior meant that she didn't love them, she would reply, "I love you but I cannot allow you to behave in a way that is harmful to yourself or others."

It is definitely true that one of our goals as a parent is nurturing our children's self-esteem. Yet as Sharon's story demonstrates, this is definitely not the only goal of parenting, and it should not be viewed as such. Healthy self-esteem is necessary in order to lead a productive and moral life. However, ultimately what determines who we are is our behavior.

As parents, our main goal should be to help our children choose the appropriate behavior in any given situation. Our role is to help them to differentiate between right and wrong. In order to do this effectively, we need to help them recognize the difference between truth and lies, and to understand the dichotomy between fantasy and reality.

The Talmud teaches an interesting principle that superficial behaviors eventually become integrated into one's personality if they are repeated often enough. In other words, don't worry about whether you feel like it or not. Do it anyway. It is reasonable to expect that our children will behave appropriately even if they don't feel like it at the time. Eventually the way they are allowed to behave routinely will determine the person they become.

Children are born narcissistic and self-absorbed. Initially it will not concern them if their behaviors impact others in a negative manor. However, if we establish and consistently enforce guidelines for appropriate behavior in relation to others, our children will break out of their cocoon of self-absorption.

Furthermore, self-mastery brings its own reward. It is the true foundation for self-esteem. There is a great difference between empty self-esteem inflating words, like "you're great" being repeated indiscriminately and true self-esteem building words that reflect a child's positive choices. True self-esteem, like many other things of lasting value, is only acquired through the hard work of mastering negative impulses and achieving self-mastery.