Is Our Self-Esteem Too High?

Everyone has their favorite annecdote about the self-esteem movement. Giving medals to every kid who attends the chess tournament, rather than just the winners. Teachers forced to grade papers in green because red ink hurts kids’ self-esteem. Wanting the word “failure” replaced with “deferred success”. You hear enough about it and eventually a type of ennui starts to set in. Why bother fighting it?

But is there, or was there, ever any basis for any attempt to artificially inflate the self-esteem of kids, or adults for that matter? The best article I’ve ever read on the subject is Exploding the Self-Esteem Myths in Scientific American. (Page 84) It shows that real studies have documented that there is either no relationship or the wrong relationship between self-esteem and academic preformace, bullying, early sex, drugs, alcohol, and so forth. Perhaps most importantly, there’s a positive relationship between self-esteem and violent crime.

So, is it time to wrap up the self-esteem movement? Perhaps launch an anti-self-esteem movement?

Self-esteem is one of those expressions that means whatever the speaker wants it to mean.

If you like it, it refers to bringing up kids who value themselves enough to take care of themselves, and feel themselves worthy and capable of making a contribution to their communities.

If you don’t like it, it refers to the concept of teaching kids to blame everybody else for their problems, and to never work for anything because they’re perfect just the way they are.

I can make up a word and give it the credit/blame for all kinds of stuff too. It’d probably be better to talk about specific instances of self-esteem building, like giving everyone the chess award, and whether those things are good or bad.

Or it means something in the middle- Kids have a false concept of their worth, and will only work until they hit an obstacle. They still feel they are making a contribution to their community, but blame everything and everyone else when they fail.

So, you don’t like it. That’s not “in the middle”, that’s taking the inherently meaningless expression and tagging it with negative meaning.

It was invented by people who wanted it to mean something good, then co-opted by people who wanted it to mean something bad. Now it has no meaning except what the person using it means to use it for.

The controversy in this thread is the reason for the newer emphasis on “self-compassion.” Of course, eventually that term will be corrupted as well, and then someone will have to come up with an even newer term.

My personal belief is that confidence, as defined and discussed in this thread, is an important and necessary skill that should be instilled in children. Whether that correlates to the self-esteem movement depends entirely on your point of view.

You could say that about pretty much any word though, couldn’t you? Many words have multiple meanings and can be used in several ways.

What we need to be focusing on in schools is not how everyone gets a trophy, but more critical thinking skills. I don’t see that coming any time soon though.

I’ve noticed that most kids (and I do mean MOST) start school with a healthy dose of self-esteem. TOO much, it would seem to some people. And then they encounter our public school system. Dedicating to beating that self-esteem right out of the little tykes. Breaking them and any spirit that gives them the idea that they’re more important than anyone else. (Whether or not they really are.) By Third Grade, all the little kids are now obedient little robots submitting to culture indoctrination as determined by the current ruling class of the school district. Those that still won’t submit are subject to additional remedial reprogramming through detentions, ridicule, assignments, and segregation.

Now, in our enlightened times, we recognize the destruction we institutionally invest in our kids, and correct it in Middle School. But only in a non-competitive way, that we are ALL special, but only as much as the other person. While now no less so, still no more so. Rather than being punished only for poor performance, we’re actually rewarded NOT for special performance, but for mediocre performance. And then wonder why we’re treated as just one of the masses, by those who’ve enjoyed privilege and recognition of their self-esteem.

As a martial artist, and one who’s taught others, I’m bitterly amused by other instructors who promote students after being in a rank for enough time because “they’re paying for it and I’d lose customers if I didn’t.” Those are the ones who, upon achieving Black Belt, promptly go out and get into a barfight, and have their asses handed to them. After all, we wouldn’t want them to suffer self-esteem problems by keeping them longer in a rank until they’ve demonstrated proficiency, right?

I don’t think you have ever worked with people who have no self-esteem.

I worked with college English students from rural China. They were mostly girls, mostly extremely poor, and not in the most prestigious program. For the most part, these kids came into the world knowing that the first thing their parents wanted to do was kill them. But for some reason- a brief but decisive moment of tenderness in most cases- they survived. Since most of their parents are migrant workers in the cities, they were usually immediately abandon to a senile old grandmother or an indifferent uncle who needed some help around the house. They (mostly) grew up with little support, little encouragement, little sense of self, and no self-worth.

The effects are devastating. Once, in class, I made the mistake of having a discussion on regrets. My students responded “I regret being born.” Indeed, China is the only country in the world with a higher female suicide rate than male, and suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged 20-35. I worked with my students on things like “Why it’s not okay for your boyfriend to beat you” and “Why anorexia is a particularly drawn-out way to commit suicide.” I had them run community service projects to show them their own power. I taught them to identify the parts of themselves they liked, and to realize their strengths and weaknesses. It was enormously effective. It seemed like every time a student walked into office hours, they burst into tears. Students would hold on to the smallest bits of praise and recall the time I said “that was a really good paper” a year later. It’s heartbreaking. And it’s a bad use of a country’s human resources.

Anyway, the point is that self-esteem is not some throwaway trend. Now, I think most of us learn it by being loved and cherished by our families. But not everyone is that lucky. Which is why it is important for our schools to emphasize honest self-reflection, an understanding of our own power to change our lives and our communities, and the worth of the effort be put forth- even if that effort is a third grade spelling workbook. Of course it can go overboard. But people who have a knee-jerk reaction against self-esteem don’t really understand what the stakes are.

Also not the “deferred success” idea was not being serious proposed, but was “deliberatively provokative” and meant to spark debate. She was just trolling to start a discussion.

There have always been people who were too cocky. People for whom the old saying “I’d like to buy him at my price and sell him at his” were invented.

And there have always been the victims of abuse whose sense of self worth was unrealistically and damagingly low.

The question is, have modern educational methods (because these debates are always proxies for the educational system) created more of the former without alleviating the rate of the latter? Built in to the debate are “one size fits all” assumptions that someone is inevitably making about the educational system, as though every kid gets exactly the same input from teachers, peers, etc as every other kid, independent of his prior personality.

And the answer is, I suspect, that it is impossible to tell. That is, it is impossible to extract the signal from the background noise of broad cultural developments which are independent of the educational system. These things are just too large and too ill-defined to be amenable to good investigation.

Further, large scale studies struggle to weed out psychopaths, who have perfectly robust self-esteem but whose behaviour is anti-social. This will always skew the results in favour of self-esteem seeming to be a bad thing.

The “get off my lawn” crowd who don’t like “kids today” invariably see rude young shits and think “kids weren’t like that in my day”. There is always an element of availability bias in this - overconfident kids attract attention, and polite kids tend not to. Thus, from an adult’s perspective, there seem to be a lot of the entitled, rude tackers around, but when lawn guy was a kid, the equivalent in his generation did not seem so manifest because to him the vast majority of kids were polite and quiet. Just as they are today.

My self-esteem isn’t too high; if anything it’s not high enough for how awesome I am. Plus, I’m the most humble person I’ve ever known or even heard about.

Well to answer the question in the OP it seems to depend on where in the world you are. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is more pronounced in the US than elsewhere and reversed in Asia.

Exactly what I was going to say. Violent crime is associated with high self esteem in part because violent crime is associated with psychopathy, in which self esteem borders on solipsism.

Self-esteem is a problem when it doesn’t match up with a person’s actual abilities. Some people have a problem in thinking they’re worth too little (like the students even sven posted about). Other people have a problem in thinking they’re worth too much.

I don’t know if this was widespread or not, but I do remember a few years ago reading that some schools were giving up awarding the honor roll because it was detrimental to average students to give recognition to above average students, or something like that.

I wanted to punch the newspaper I read that in.

Grade school is boot camp for life. I missed out on a lot of the indoctrination as a student in a nonstructured classroom in the '70s and have been paying for it ever since. I got self-esteem and self-respect but very little self-worth - that’s what comes from the big unfriendly world.

I sometimes think kids need caring, sensitive training in being miserable, scared and angry. They ought to be told ahead of time, and helped through it just like anything else in their young lives.

That was a very powerful anecdote. I agree with your statement that “it is important for our schools to emphasize honest self-reflection, an understanding of our own power to change our lives and our communities, and the worth of the effort to be put forth …”.

I remember in first grade, we had a daily assignment to write a friendly letter to one of our classmates. This was our opportunity to thank that classmate for sharing our crayons, or tell them how their hair looks pretty when they were barrettes, or compliment them on being a good soccer player. It was a great exercise, first of all because it encouraged us to look for the good in our classmates, and also because when we read the letters our classmates wrote us, they were filled with reasons why we should feel proud of our accomplishments.

I also remember a time in first grade when our guidance counselor visited the classroom to do a self-esteem exercise with us. She had the entire class chant “I like myself; I’m worth a lot” over and over. I told my parents about it when I got home. They asked if the guidance counselor had given us any real reason as to why we were worth a lot, and why we should like ourselves. She hadn’t.

The self-esteem movement seems to be, in large part, mindless changing of “I like myself; I’m worth a lot.” Building up a child’s ego for its own sake is dumb. But I think even sven makes a good point. Having a healthy sense of worth, or even high self-esteem, is not an inherently bad thing.

I’ve seen research that says it is better to praise kids for trying hard rather than for being smart. When a kid does a pattern matching exercise and the adult says, “Good job, you must be really smart. Now, would you like to try another one like this, or a harder one?” the kid tends to pick the easier option because they are afraid to risk exposing themselves as not actually smart. When the adult says, “Good job, you must have tried hard,” the kid tends to go for a harder puzzle the next time because they know that trying hard is within their control. I think it’s important to build kids’ self-esteem based on what they can control rather than traits they just happen to have. Of course it’s great to be talented and smart, but everyone can work on polishing what they have.

Another kind of self-esteem I think it’s important to promote in school is when girls assume they should defer to boys’ leadership, or a minority child thinks she isn’t as pretty as a white child, or a boy who is good at art feels that isn’t a manly talent to have.

But “I’m great, I love myself,” is pretty useless and possibly counterproductive.

Self-esteem is a dependent variable. It’s earned by accomplishment. It can’t just be instilled as praise and unearned reward. Just handing them those things instills things like entitlement, self-importance, egoism and superiority which are not the same thing. They should start out with a basic understanding that they are of equal value with others (no more no less), but the idea that that building up their ego will make them achieve is complete nonsense, and even worse is telling them they’ve achieved when they haven’t.

You teach them to achieve by teaching them to achieve - by teaching them skill sets and by preaching things like effort, discipline, pereseverance and learning from mistakes. That last thing is very important. Far more is learned from failure than from false praise. A kid feels much better about himself when he gets a reward because he knows he worked his ass off and earned it than if it’s just handed to him for nothing, and he will also know why he got the reward. he’ll know what he actually did to get it and not get any impression that it’s some kind of birth right.

Excuse me, but please go back and read what you wrote again. You’re saying you want to promote those attitudes as self-esteem, not help kids overcome them with self-esteem. Do I understand you right?