Is self-esteem bad? Consequences for children’s development.

Is self-esteem bad? Consequences for children’s development.

If you are reading this you are probably a member of Generation Me, a term Social Psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge, Ph.D., coined to characterize anybody born since 1970 in her 2006 book titled Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled- and More Miserable Than Ever Before.

It is the book that has inspired this blog post, its findings, and a book I highly recommend you read! As members of Generation Me, more than ever before, we are constantly and relentlessly pre-occupied and caught up in ourselves. This preoccupation has led to the proliferation of self-esteem movements, and our focus on self-esteem in mainstream culture. Even if we wanted to, we cannot escape self-esteem. It is everywhere, omnipresent, and intrinsically woven into the fabric of our lives. For example, I just typed in ‘self-esteem’ on www.amazon.com and came up with over 17, 000 results! Topics range from how to increase your self-esteem, to loving yourself, and to strategies on how to boost your confidence. You may wonder what harm there can come from having a high self-esteem. Isn’t that what we should all strive towards? Feeling really good about ourselves and loving ourselves no matter what? Is that not the purpose of a good, healthy, and productive life? Doesn’t self-esteem lead to better relationships, academic success, and overall life satisfaction? For the purposes of this blog, I am going to focus on the consequences of the self-esteem movement on children/youth and their development.

A sense of entitlement

First, by constantly reinforcing our children, providing them with whatever they want-within our means-and continuously promoting the idea that, “loving yourself no matter what is the most important thing” or “you should always do what makes you happy” and that, “you are special no matter what” has created a sense of entitlement amongst the youth (Twenge, 2006). This is dangerous because it is creating a false type of self-esteem where individuals feel good about themselves at the expense of having to earn it. Entitlement can border on cockiness, being demanding, and having an unrealistic view of oneself.

Lowered academic standards

Second, the self-esteem movement has led to a lowering of standards with respect to achievement and success. Why? Twenge (2006) argues that the self-esteem movement does not allow for criticism of students in school. For example, in American schools today, teachers are giving higher grades than ever before, and in some schools teachers have proposed a policy that would no longer allow for schools to fail children, while others have advocated for the removal of the terminology of “failing.” As Twenge (2006) puts it, “…creating a positive atmosphere is more important than correcting mistakes” (pg. 96). As well, in order to curb any negative feelings or competition, many schools no longer post the names of students who made the Honour Roll with the fear that they may hurt students’ feelings. What is the message then? We are putting self-esteem ahead of teaching; self-esteem ahead of challenging our youth to compete (fairly and respectfully) with others; and self-esteem ahead of rewarding success. I was speaking to a friend, who is a Grade two teacher, about this phenomenon and she could not agree more. She stated that today, teachers are afraid to challenge students too much because this feedback can be perceived as negative and will have ramifications with the student and his or her parents.

Unprepared for the realities of the real world

Today, students are rewarded for being average, discouraged from competition, and are receiving inflated grades (Twenge, 2006). These factors lead directly into the third consequence. The youth today are unprepared for life’s trials and tribulations, such as disappointment, failures, rejections, and the negative emotions that will subsequently follow. They do not have the practice or the expectation that failure is possible. Youth are raised to believe that they are special and unique, and that this ‘reality’ will ensure they get whatever they desire (even if they have not necessarily earned it). In the real world, however, their parents or teachers will not insulate them; they will be just another person applying for a job or promotion. Competition is at an all-time high in our society. Therefore, poor training and a sense of entitlement equals a recipe for disappointment.

What does the research say? Self-control versus self-esteem

The research indicates that there is a small correlation between self-esteem and grades. That is to say, self-esteem does not cause high grades rather the reverse is more accurate: high grades cause higher self-esteem. Self-esteem then is not the means to the end; it is the final product, dependent on actions to exert an influence on it (Twenge, 2006). We need to focus more on self-control rather than self-esteem if we want children to do better in school. Children high in self-control, defined as one’s capacity to persistently pursue and not give up on a task, tend to achieve higher grades (Twenge, 2006). Therefore, it would be better for us to increase a child’s perseverance when faced with low grades or negative evaluations, for example. This is the mark of a successful individual. Not giving up when discouraged but to use it as motivation for improvement moving forward.

Conclusions

We need to shift our perspective and find a middle ground between too much self-esteem and being overly critical. Both are bad for our children, and their future. We need to love our children unconditionally, facilitate their aspirations, hopes, and dreams, support them and guide them, but we need to do this in ways that are grounded in reality. They need to earn esteem based on: their actions, successes and achievements, and on how they overcome and rise above failures. It is not good enough to say, “I am great just because, and therefore, I will not try or not push myself to achieve.” This creates stagnation, perpetuates laziness, and ultimately saps the potential out of our children. In the end, that would be everything the self-esteem movement is against.

Reference
Twenge, J.M. (2006). Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled- and More Miserable Than Ever Before. Free Press: New York, NY.

  1. Verisimilitude
    August 6, 2011 at 6:51 am

    Great article Maneet. Well written!
    I have the following comments to offer:

    - While well researched, the book by Twenge is largely based on American examples and I would be hesitant to extrapolate to the Canadian context.

    - Elimination of failure doesn’t mean the elimination of low grades.

    - If grades are inflated or scaled up there is still the incentive of being placed ahead of the curve or at the top of ones class.

    - If there is a small correlation between self esteem and academic performance, based purely on how these are measured, do these two variables not suffer greatly from auto-correlation?

    Lastly, consider this scenario:

    [ Alice and Bob are working on a problem together. Alice focuses on the physics and mathematics, Bob focuses on thinking of ways that the problem could be interpreted which then assist Alice in manipulating her solutions.

    Both students have learned something, possibly physics related. That said, they come away with different experiences, different learned skills. They both learned something? AMAZING!! But there's only one that I can test. ]

    How do I test Bob’s ability to think up many solutions when Alice is the only one who can take his ideas and put them into practice?

    Bob’s skills are no less valuable than those of Alice, but they don’t achieve a mark. I cannot promote Bob based on his ability to think in a divergent manner when we’re looking for an outcome to a problem. There’s no doubt that he is valuable, but I can’t make him realize his own value if his divergent thinking cannot help him determine the final solution.

    Grades fail to take into consideration the learning experience and growth as a whole – they aren’t grounded in reality. The problems are assessment methods and time.

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