Self Esteem Examined

In a recent blog I argued that the self-esteem movement that permeates the schools has also infiltrated other aspects of our culture — such as religion. My argument may or may not be sound, but it occurs to me that it really doesn’t matter unless I can make a strong case that the phenomenon we call the “self-esteem” movement is not necessarily a good thing. On its face we would think that we would want our kids to feel good about themselves and that an educational theory built around the concept of self-esteem would be a sound one that guarantees success in the classroom and later in life. Not so.

I will call on Maureen Stout who holds a PhD in Education from UCLA and now teaches at California State University in Northridge. In 2000 she wrote the book on the self-esteem movement, titled The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America’s Kids in the Name of Self Esteem. The book is based on careful research and first-hand experience.  One of the key chapters begins as follows:

“. . .the self-esteem movement has slowly infiltrated education to the point that today most educators believe developing self-esteem to be one of the primary purposes of public education. As a result, schools are providing more courses in ‘life skills’ and less attention on academics, which are the sore of a liberal education. The very essence of public schooling is thus being transformed. We are in danger of producing individuals who are expert at knowing how they feel rather than educated individuals who know how to think.. . .The self-esteem movement infiltrates virtually every aspect of schooling from teaching methods to evaluation to curriculum planning. It is the most popular of all the fads, and the most dangerous. . . .The preponderance of evidence illustrates that self-esteem is irrelevant in all areas of education.”

Now whether we agree with Dr. Stout that this movement is “dangerous” it is certainly worth careful scrutiny. We can see how insidious it is by means of a brief thought experiment. Imagine, if you will a young child faced with a barrier. We have lowered the barrier in order to allow the child to step over it easily. After she has done so we applaud her and tell her what a terrific job she has done. As she stands basking in our praise she notices other children stepping over the barrier and also receiving applause and affection. It appears to be the norm: all of the other children make it over the barrier easily and all receive praise. As she reflects on this her sense of having achieved something special disappears in a cloud of disappointment and a suspicion that something just isn’t right.

Compare this with another child who is asked to hop over a barrier that is quite a bit higher. She will have to move back and make an effort. At first she fails, but we assist her and tell her she can do it if she tries a bit harder. We give her some tips on how to do this sort of thing successfully. Other children around her are also trying, many of them are failing, but several make it over to our applause and sincere praise. She wants this praise as well and she makes an extra effort and finally also clears the barrier. Her sense of accomplishment is genuine, as is our praise and appreciation. Her growing sense of self-worth is genuine as well and not likely to fade in disappointment as was the case with the first child.

While this little thought experiment may appear transparent and overly simple, it makes an important point — one that has been confirmed by numerous experiments that the “self-esteem” advocates who drive educational practice simply ignore. Self esteem must come as a result of real effort; our job is to set the bar higher and help others over it; failure is a fact of life and helps us grow; children sense the dishonesty in plaudits that are not earned; and when things are made too easy this lead to an unwarranted sense of entitlement. Maureen Stout is right: this movement is dangerous and it is wide-spread. Things worth doing are worth doing well and praise must be earned in order to translate into a genuine sense of self-worth.


11 thoughts on “Self Esteem Examined

  1. I remember when this self-esteem curriculum was introduced in my middle school. I was so confused as a child. I suddenly felt the need to examine my “self-esteem” and I just couldn’t see the point of it. I am also frustrated with the ridiculous craft activities and movie watching they do at my daughter’s school. Where are the academics?!?

    • Indeed, where are they? There are schools that still aspire to teach kids and there are excellent teachers who make do with little or no support. But you have to search them out! Thanks, Emily. It’s good to have the perspective of someone who was fed this nonsense as a child!


  2. Hugh, great post which makes you think. Well done. I believe we spend too much painting issues into an either/ or scenario, when almost all of the world is an olio of the two. I agree that esteem is important, but false esteem can be dangerous. With that said, if you took a mixture of three students – one from poverty with one parent who did not have as much oppportunity and maybe did not hear much ecnoragement, one who is a middle class, average student who needs to apply himself more and one who is a self starter who is ahead of the class – you likely treat them differently at different times in their progression. They actually need tailored curriculum, but that is hard without resources. Encouragement for working hard and early progress may be in store of the first child, the second child may need encouragement to not waste opportunity and the third one may need to be challenged with encouragement to take on more and get out of your comfort zone. I always remember my High School Calculus teacher did us a disservice for not pushing us more – she gave us all A’s because the material was hard. I really did not learn Calculus until I went to college as a result. That is false self esteem at its worst. Great post, BTG

    • You make a good point. And that’s what a good teacher does: tailor the lesson to the student as much as possible. But no kid wants to be told she did something terrific when she knows deep down it wasn’t her best effort. In the end she simply doesn’t bother to try. Why should she?


  3. dear Hugh,
    This is quite interesting. I just read a book called, “59 seconds”. In it, many studies are brought forward. One of them, is about self-esteem.
    In the study, children were told they were wonderful. Some had tried hard, others not….but they were all “wonderful”. These same children chose NOT to try a hard puzzle that was presented. Opted out. The children who were praised for their hard work….when they acutally had tried hard….WANTED to try the hard puzzle.
    Isn’t that something???
    Great post!

  4. I don’t know if Calif. takes the award or not, but we actually had a state legislator a few decades past who passed laws requiring teaching and supporting self esteem for everyone. Maybe thats how this whole, ridiculous movement got started?

    I think we clearly see the results today of this false idea that everyone wins, everyone is wonderful. Its the basis for helicopter moms, and workers who expect to be able to take a day off because they had a rough night, or who don’t understand why after a year, they are not promoted to manager.

    The funniest/saddest case I personally recall was a graduate student of a good friend of mine who taught a course in international business. He asked if the student could contact me for some information on doing business in China.

    Bottom line, the student did call, but had no interest in coming to the office to meet with me, or even interview me on the phone. He just wondered if I could point him to a website or two that might give him some information.

    Needless to say, It was a waste of my time and his, and my professor friend was at once embarrassed (no need to be) and let down that what he thought was a shining star student had once again opted to try a shortcut to success. But thats what a false sense of self esteem does, I think.

    Good post, as usual.

    • Yes, I think it was a California legislator a few years back who was told that the evidence doesn’t support the self-esteem movement. He replied that he didn’t care what the evidence showed, he knew it worked!


  5. Another thoughtful post, Hugh. I hadn’t put much thought into this before reading your blog posts – maybe because we don’t have kids. But I can definitely see your point. Of course, I always prefer praise over the boot camp style that some teachers and coaches use. And I do think some kids really can use the boost. But this is very interesting and something I will keep an eye on more in the future.

  6. Low self-esteem is a negative evaluation of oneself. This type of evaluation usually occurs when some circumstance we encounter in our life touches on our sensitivities. We personalize the incident and experience physical, emotional, and cognitive arousal. This is so alarming and confusing that we respond by acting in a self-defeating or self-destructive manner. ”

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