CJUR (2017) >> Research article

Parky Hansen Lau
Published February 2017 | Cite this article | Download PDF


To look at one’s self in the mirror and say, “I like who I am,” or, “I am worthwhile,” and to tru-ly mean it is not a simple task for most individu-als. Yet these subjective evaluations of our-selves – our self-esteem – are incredibly influential on a wide range of outcomes. Past research has shown that self-esteem is related to academic achievement (Marsh, 1990), happiness (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2005; Taylor & Brown, 1988) and psychological well-being (Kernis, 2003). These findings are especially significant for children, as the development of self-esteem in early childhood may have major implications throughout their course of life. Therefore, extensive research is nec-essary to begin applying our knowledge of self-es-teem development in order to examine specific parental practices and techniques that promote healthy self-esteem in children across different cul-tures. However, previous research has been based predominantly on the use of explicit measures of self-esteem such as parental report or child self-re-port (Li-Hua, Li-Zhu, & Fang, 2006; Rosenberg & Pearlin, 1978). This may be an issue as explicit measures of self-esteem for children are limited (Hughes, 1984) and inherently susceptible to re-sponse sets such as social desirability (Nosek & Greenwald, 2005). As well, explicit measures po-tentially paint an incomplete picture with respect to an individual’s self-esteem; self-reports may not necessarily mirror an individual’s nonconscious or implicit feelings of self-worth (Hofmann, Gaw-ronski, Gschwendner, Le, & Schmitt, 2005). In this paper, I advocate for the use of a non-deliberative implicit model to help mitigate these issues when studying children’s self-esteem. I will provide argu-ments emphasizing the need for a multifaceted ap-proach with respect to the study and application of self-esteem research in children and to determine specific factors, such as parental style, that encour-age its positive development. Implicit measures for children will be outlined to determine their validity and reliability for future research and directions for future research advocating a holistic and multicul-tural approach to the study of self-esteem will be discussed.

Benefits of studying implicit self-esteem in children

Although there has been extensive research into the development of self-esteem in children, most of these studies have relied on an explicit measure of self-esteem through parents or teachers (Fuchs-Beauchamp, 1996; Hughes & Pugh, 1984) as well as through children’s self-report (Hughes, 1984). One potential limitation with this approach is that explicit measures can be affected by response sets such as social desirability (Greenwald, McGhee & Schwartz, 1998) as well as self-enhancement bi-ases (Taylor & Brown, 1988). On the other hand, implicit self-esteem, which is defined as an “auto-matic and nonconscious evaluation of the self that guides spontaneous reactions to self-relevant stim-uli” (Greenwald & Banaji, 2005; Pelham & Hetts, 1999), may be less susceptible to these biases. This is due to the fact that implicit measures of self-es-teem reduce the available mental control required to produce the response and mitigate the role of in-tentional processes (Nosek, Greenwald, & Banaji, 2007). Implicit measures provide an “automatic” and “non-deliberative” representation of an indi-vidual’s attitude and thus, may be a more reliable indicator of their true attitude (Nosek et al., 2007).

Implicit self-esteem has been implicated in various aspects of mental well-being, such as by acting as a buffer against adverse consequences of failure (Greenwald & Farnham, 2000), as well as mediating anxiety in self-relevant interviews (Spal-ding & Hardin, 1999). Research by Hetts and Pel-ham (1999) also highlights the importance of im-plicit self-esteem as it may aid in coping against stigmatization. In light of these potential benefits of positive implicit self-esteem, it is clear that utiliz-ing an implicit model may prove largely beneficial in developmental research, especially in its applica-tion to find specific factors, such as specific types of parental style, that promote positive development of self-esteem.

Parental style and children’s self-esteem

One domain that has been of particular inter-est to researchers is the development of children’s self-esteem in relation to parental style. Previous studies have investigated the differential effects of parental rearing styles on self-esteem across an in-dividual’s lifespan and in different cultural contexts (Antonopoulou, Alexopoulos, & Maridaki-Kassota-ki, 2012; Furham & Cheng, 2000; Herz & Gullone, 1999). Specific studies have provided empirical evidence that an authoritative parenting approach (Baumrind, 1971) is related to higher self-esteem in childhood (Li-Hua et al., 2006) and adolescence (Milevsky, Schlechter, Netter, & Keehn, 2007). Fur-thermore, research has provided support for the importance of self-esteem in its relation to individ-uals’ psychological well-being with respect to both depression (Dumont & Provost, 1999) and happi-ness (Furnham & Cheng, 2000). However, past re-search tends to examine parental styles and their relation to the development of self-esteem through a Western-centric lens and may not be generaliz-able to all cultures. In support of this account, one study found that Brazilian adolescents from indul-gent families had comparable social and academ-ic outcomes, as well as greater self-esteem when compared to adolescents of parents that advocated an authoritative style (Martinez, Garcia, & Yubero, 2007). As well, research into East Asian cultures show that the Chinese have specific concepts em-bedded in their traditions and language that asso-ciates parental love and care with firm governance of the child (Chao, 1994). One implication of this cultural norm is that authoritarian parenting style tends to lead to better outcomes in Chinese house-holds that have adopted these values, in compari-son to authoritative parenting.

Although there has been extensive research examining the relationship between parental style and self-esteem, the studies have primarily focused on an explicit form of self-esteem. Less research has been devoted to examining the effects of im-plicit self-esteem, especially in children, despite its potential significance. Indeed, Jordan, Spencer, Zanna, Hoshino-Browne, and Correll (2003) high-lighted the importance of taking a holistic approach in studying self-esteem to develop a more accurate picture of an individual’s personality traits. Specifi-cally, they found that a combination of high explicit self-esteem and low implicit self-esteem is related to greater defensiveness and higher levels of nar-cissism in undergraduate students. The aforemen-tioned example provides insight into the necessity and utility in advancing an implicit model to study self-esteem. This gap in research is especially prom-inent and concerning in the developmental field as the development of self-esteem may begin as early as three years of age (Li-Hua et al., 2006). However, in order to begin investigating implicit self-esteem in children, we must first consider the plausibility of measuring the construct through ex-amining previous validated implicit measures of self-esteem.

Implicit measures of self-esteem in children

The vast majority of methodologies dedicat-ed to measuring implicit self-esteem has focused on catering to the adult population (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Greenwald & Farnham, 2000). How-ever, there have been recent advances in the de-velopment of implicit measures for children. For example, Cvencek, Greenwald, and Meltzoff (2011) successfully adapted the original Implicit Association Test (IAT) by Greenwald et al. (1998) to be ac-cessible for children as young as 4-years-old. They found that this child-friendly version of the IAT was sensitive to evaluative preference for flowers over insects. In addition, the study found that implicit preferences for flowers were stronger in girls than in boys, as demonstrated in a previous study by Baron and Banaji (2006), thus providing greater convergent validity. Furthermore, a recent study by Cvencek, Greenwald, and Meltzoff (2016) used this Preschool Implicit Association Test (PSIAT) to ex-amine implicit self-esteem in young children. The self-esteem PSIAT is a double-categorization task that combines a concept classification (me vs. not-me) and an attribute classification (good vs. bad), with these dimensions represented as pictures and words (Cvencek et al., 2011). This task provides a measure of implicit self-esteem by comparing re-sponse latency to infer the strength of association between two dimensions. Thus, children who have higher positive implicit self-esteem will respond more quickly when the attribute classification is congruent (good) compared to when the attribute is incongruent (bad).

General conclusions and future directions

There clearly exists great value in examining self-esteem in children due to the various outcomes correlated with the construct, such as its relation-ship with mental health (Lloyd & Miller, 1997) and life satisfaction (Milevsky et al., 2007). Past re-search has also shown that various constructs are better predicted by measures of implicit self-es-teem, including persistence in failure and coping against stigmatization (Hetts & Pelham, 1999; Gre-enwald & Farnham, 2000). Thus, implicit self-es-teem may tap into important constructs that are less associated with explicit self-esteem. As well, studies have shown that incongruence in implic-it and explicit self-esteem is linked to narcissism and greater defensiveness in adolescence (Jordan et al., 2003). This suggests the importance of tak-ing an implicit model into consideration in order to to provide a more complete and accurate account of a child’s self-esteem. Further research using this model to examine the factors that impact self-esteem will be useful in determining the ideal condi-tions for a child’s growth. Thus, it will be necessary to focus on further developing reliable and valid implicit measures of self-esteem that are accessible for young children. In addition, specific parental practices may have differential effects on self-es-teem development depending on the values and at-titudes of an individual’s culture (Herz & Gullone, 1999; Wang & Ollendick, 2001). Thus, future re-search may also benefit from cross-cultural studies to determine specific parental styles that are asso-ciated with the healthy development of implicit and explicit self-esteem in young children within differ-ent cultural milieus.

Although a major part of this paper is ded-icated to the exploration of potential benefits and possibilities of using an implicit model to study children’s self-esteem, it is important to recognize that future research will benefit most from exam-ining implicit self-esteem and explicit self-esteem in tandem. Indeed, research has shown that it is the congruence of self-esteem in both domains that is essential when considering future outcomes (Jordan et al., 2003; Zeigler-Hill, 2006). Through employing these models together, we can begin to create a more holistic and accurate picture of the development of self-esteem in children. In doing so, we can extend and apply these findings to deter-mine specific parental practices and environmental factors that foster positive self-esteem, both explic-itly and implicitly.


I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. Susan Birch for sparking my interest in the field of devel-opmental psychology and providing me with invalu-able opportunities to engage in further research, both in class and in the K.I.D. Studies Centre. I would also like to thank Marisa Gagne for taking time out of her busy day to edit the article. Without their guidance and kind support, this paper would not have been made possible.


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