The Self-Esteem Trap
I must be really immature because I’ve been reading my kids’ magazines again! We got the latest issue of “Muse” yesterday and it has a large article dedicated to the benefits and down sides of developing the self-esteem in kids. It is a very interesting read, and it is built around the research done by Roy Baumeister for the American Psychological Society. The results of the research were published in May 2003, and are called “Does Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles”?
The reason for this work was that, for the last several decades, the schools and especially the elementary schools have made significant changes to their program in order to promote a boost in the students’ self-esteem. The expectation was that higher self-esteem will lead to higher grades, decrease in violence, decrease in self-destructive behavior such as alcohol, nicotine and drug abuse and teen pregnancies, and generally make the children more successful later in life. The research was started because, from a lot of people’s observation, the self-esteem boost programs were not working as expected, and did, indeed, find that most of the initial assumptions were incorrect. I will quote a little from the article. Thankfully, it was written for the kids age ten and up, so the author has kept it short and sweet.
The quotes are taken from the article “The Rise and Fall of Self-Esteem” by Frank Stephenson, published in the February 2005 issue of the “Muse” magazine.
“Much of the energy that has driven the self-esteem movement has come from a widely held belief that kids with higher self-esteem make better grades. Some of the best evidence reveals that it works the other way around – that kids with better grades go on to have higher senses of self-esteem. Most of the studies showed little, if any, evidence that high self-esteem played any role in children’s future success in the classroom”.
“Traditionally, bullies and other “toughs” have been profiled by psychologists as people with hidden feelings of inadequacy, a low self-esteem masked by a nasty, even vicious, exterior. Norway’s Dan Olweus was among the first psychologists to show that bullies typically have less anxiety and more confidence in themselves than the average person. <…> Aggressive people typically have favorable – even dramatically inflated – view of themselves”.
Less Prone to Self-Destructive Behavior?
“Can a better sense of self-worth keep us healthier? Keep us from smoking, abusing alcohol, and other drugs, from getting pregnant at 16? If we accept the standard code of self-help industry, the answer to all of the above is an unqualified “yes”. … Baumweister’s analysis of the data offers little support for such beliefs. Do people with high self-esteem have better relationships?... Studies show that people with high self-esteem don’t see the world around them as it really is. They think they’re widely accepted socially, even loved, when in fact they’re self-deluded. And science confirms that conceit is a big turnoff. “People who have elevated or inflated views of themselves tend to alienate others”, the report states.
… a number of other studies found no link at all between self-esteem and smoking. What seems clear is that, in general, low self-esteem – at least by itself – does not cause kids to light up… The same holds for drinking and drug abuse. “Whatever the causes of alcohol abuse and drug addiction,” says Baumeister, “low self-esteem per se does not appear to be one of them”.
Should we continue?
“One of the things the research shows is that high self-esteem can make people more resilient, make them keep on plugging after initially failing at something… A genuine sense of self-esteem can give people a stock of positive attitudes that can help them cope with life’s trials.
Is the pursuit of happiness alone ample justification for keeping the self-esteem enterprise going? Baumeister and his co-authors don’t think so. Ultimately, kids who are brought up in an environment where there’s no clear link between personal accomplishment and self-worth pay a hefty emotional and even physical price down the road, they argue. Sudden doses of reality come as a real shock to students who lack the emotional fortitude for dealing effectively with failure or challenges to their lofty opinions of themselves”.
What I Think
First of all, I have a strong temptation to get all theological on you, but I won’t. You probably already know all I’m going to say in this regard, so I’ll just skip over to my next point. Here it is.
When I first encountered the “self-esteem policy” in action in my children’s schools, I admit I really liked it. I went to school in Russia and our school system was very strict and very academically- and discipline-oriented. No one ever thought about boosting our self-esteem when I was in school. When our teachers wanted us to improve, they’d humiliate us in front of the class, on the assumption that this would motivate us to work harder to prevent it from happening again. Now, to my surprise, I find out that there were a lot of people in Russia who actually liked school. All of my classmates, as well as myself, hated it. So, by the time I had my own kids, I knew fairly well that putting a person down doesn’t work very well in a school setting. But what about building a person up? At first, I was thrilled to see the “Nice job!” and “Superb work!” stickers on my sons’ school papers. That was until I realized that everything every child ever does in school always gets one of those stickers attached to it. And after a certain point, instead of making you feel better about yourself, these stickers start to look like an enormous load of bull, which I guess is what they actually are!
Another thing is that kids are competitive by nature. By insisting that all kids feel equally good about themselves, we essentially demand that everyone be the same. Not “equal”, which would be correct, but “the same”. If a kid tries to get ahead, then he’s in trouble, because they’re hurting everybody’s feelings just by getting ahead. If you have a close friend, then shame on you, because you’re hurting everybody else’s feelings by not being their friend. We took what was probably not a bad idea and blew it out of proportion until it became ridiculous. We took a good word “special” and abused it to the point where our kids are now using it as an insult. The good part, of course, is that nobody over the age of six is buying into the “self-esteem boosters” they are being presented with in school, and nobody really is following the rules that have been created to boost self-esteem in kids. For instance, all of our school handbooks say that, when your child has a birthday party, he or she is required to invite all boys or girls in class. Well, you know what? Nobody does this. And it’s a good thing. So, while I don’t believe that “high self-esteem at all costs” is really a worthy goal, I wouldn’t worry about it too much – because in reality, it isn’t working that way anyway.
So what should we do – go back to humiliating kids into submission? No, I don’t agree with that approach either. What I believe is, everybody is good at something. If you’re an adult, every person around you is an expert at something and is better than you in some area. If you’re a child, then every kid around you has their own set of talents – some are good at sports, some are good at math, some at art, and so on. Why don’t we try respecting the person for what they are actually good at? Not telling them to downplay their talents so everyone around them could feel good. And not humiliating them for being unsuccessful in other areas. Just giving them the respect they deserve for what they are really good at. Maybe then our schools, and our society, would be a better place.