Back in the 1970s, many school districts became enamored with the idea that if you raised children’s self-esteem they would do better in school. Although this so-called “self-esteem movement” proved to be ill conceived, many people still believe the canard that high self-esteem is the root of all achievement. Since that time many researchers have studied the topic of self-esteem, and the findings have been pretty consistent: high self-esteem for the sake of personal validation, meaning self-esteem that is not based on actual personal achievement or positive behavior, is not necessarily a healthy thing.
Dr. Jean Twenge recently published the book “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – And More Miserable than Ever Before,” in which she documents the failures of the self-esteem movement in schools. Her research makes clear that phony self-esteem can be a very self-destructive thing. Her conclusion is that self-control is a much more accurate predictor of success than self-esteem.
A recent article in the Harvard Mental Health Letter (June 2007) also suggests that encouraging self-esteem as a primary goal is not healthy and could in fact remove any incentives to improve behavior. If you are supposed to feel good about yourself just because you exist, why study hard, work hard, treat others well, or take any actions to earn these feelings? While it is certainly beneficial to encourage young people to feel good about real accomplishments, encouraging self-esteem for its own sake is not healthy.
If you have watched the early auditions on American Idol you have surely marveled at how confident some of the worst performers are. Even when the judges look on with horror and give them three thumbs down, they declare that they are very talented and no one is going to crush their dreams. You can just imagine this person’s mother praising their tone-deaf child for fear the truth would destroy them. The consequence is that they are now learning the truth by being humiliated in front of millions of television viewers. While this is an extreme example, many teens whose self-esteem is based on nothing more than talk are in for similar disappointments as they move into adulthood.
Many schools during the self-esteem movement of the 70s stopped correcting children’s spelling for fear that it would stifle their creativity or make them feel bad about school. These children often ended up being needlessly terrible spellers as adults. While students should have been focusing more on reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, teachers had them create “Why I’m Special” treatises to show their parents. Scores on standardized tests dropped, but at least the kids felt good about themselves!
Some educators have gone so overboard that they have stopped announcing honor rolls for fear it would make the kids not on the honor roll feel bad about themselves. This removes a strong incentive in schools: if you study hard, pay attention in class, and do your assignments, you might just make honor roll. In a way, by creating a false idea that everyone is the “same,” you could be encouraging mediocrity rather than accomplishment. Healthy competition is what creates change and inspires new inventions. Would PCs have improved as much as they have if it weren’t for the competition of Apple computers?
You might ask, what is so wrong with encouraging kids to feel good about themselves? You are not preparing a child for the real world if you are handing him awards just for being “the one and only you.” Many of these youngsters will experience severe disappointment when they discover their employer does not recognize they are “special” just for showing up to work.
In the mid-1990s, Roy F. Baumeister, Joseph Boden, and Laura Smart published a report with the subtitle, “The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem.” What these researchers found was that contrary to the belief that criminals and violent offenders have low self-esteem, they actually have inordinately high self-esteem. Their research and the research of others on violent youth gangs found that that these teens had very high opinions of themselves, and they found no evidence that they were simply compensating for private feelings of self-doubt or low self-esteem.
They discovered that violent youths really seem to believe they are superior to others.
Baumeister et al. concluded, “In our view, the benefits of favorable self-opinions accrue primarily to the self, and they are if anything a burden and potential problem to everyone else.”
Other researchers have also found that self-esteem for its own sake has little or no value. They have found “D” students do not necessarily think less highly of themselves than “A” students. They have found that people with high self-esteem who perform poorly in school often blame their failures on others. Bullies often have very over-inflated self-esteem, believing themselves to be superior to their classmates.
Dr. Nicholas Elmer of the London School of Economics found that high self-esteem tended to predict risky behaviors such as drunk driving. He found no evidence that low self-esteem contributed to juvenile delinquency.
When self-esteem is not based on personal drive, accomplishments, or positive behavior it resembles narcissism more than actual esteem. Narcissism is an excessive form of self-love that leads to a sense of entitlement and selfish world view. The narcissist expects adulation and reward regardless of his or her behavior.
Many questionable feel-good practices have proliferated in schools due to the mistaken notion that raising self-esteem for its own sake is a worthy goal. One practice is to give everyone a trophy, not just the winners. However, true, healthy self-esteem based on one’s behavior and accomplishments cannot be crushed by not winning a Little League trophy. Baumeister’s research showed that self-esteem does not move up and down with every event in one’s life. The idea that we must protect our children’s fragile egos from life’s ups and downs as if they are esteem-crushing events is simply mistaken.
One of the most persistent legacies of the self-esteem movement is grade inflation. Although more students get As these days, SAT scores continue to decline. Everyone expects to get an A if they turn in their work, regardless of the work’s intrinsic value. Parents often harass teachers who do not give their child the “A” they believe they deserve. These children are often ill-prepared for real life as they discover college professors and bosses base rewards on performance and merit, not on just being “the one and only you.”
Baumeister’s research indicated that “praise should be tied to performance and that the people we should worry about are those whose superior sense of self is not grounded in reality.” So the next time your child is acting up and not working hard, don’t praise them as a way to encourage them to feel good about themselves so they will try harder, give them a reality check and let them know they will be praised when they do something that is praiseworthy.