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Self-esteem is important, but too much is not reality

Jan 25, 2013


Mt. Pleasant News


Okay, I’m taking a risk, a risk by dating myself.

I remember when Garrison Keillor began his radio show. For years he has hosted a radio program on National Public Radio (NPR).

On his show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” he featured the news from Lake Woebegon. Lake Woebegon is a fictional town in Keillor’s native Minnesota where “the women are strong, the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.”

Keillor’s parody is becoming uncomfortably true to life, according to an analysis of responses to the annual American College Survey.

Glancing at the survey results, Jean Twenge, a psychologist, found that college freshmen are more likely to be self-centered and possess unearned self-confidence than at any time in the last four decades, according to a release that recently crossed my desk.


Twenge said that approximately 75 percent of freshmen assert a greater “drive to achieve” than their peers, and about 60 percent rate their “intellectual self confidence” and “leadership ability” as above average. Just over half say their “social self-confidence” is above average, and just under half say their writing ability is above average.

What a change. In 1965, in only one of five categories — drive to achieve — did a majority of students (60 percent) rate themselves as “above average.” In the latest analysis, in only one category — writing ability (perhaps too much texting?) — did a bare majority of freshmen rate themselves as above average. Twenge also reported the tendency toward narcissism is up 30 percent.

The psychologist is best known as the author of two books on 20-somethings: “Generation Me” and “The Narcissism Epidemic.”

She analyzed responses to a large-scale annual survey done by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). After her analysis, she termed American teens as self-absorbed and suffering from too much self-esteem.

Naturally, her remarks drew a firestorm of criticism.

I am not into pointing fingers, but during the last several decades, school districts have been involved in a “self esteem movement,” rationalizing that if students felt better about themselves, they would achieve more.

It is impossible to argue the validity of that rationalization. However, I question whether some school districts went too far. In a former life, a school district my children attended mandated that every team member play the same amount of time in athletic contests, regardless of talent.

So, was that mandate more helpful or hurtful? I have my coaching endorsement and coached primarily youth and junior high sports for several decades. Although I always made sure every team member played in every contest, they did not play equal.

By mandating equal time for all, I believe you are hindering the progression of those athletes who plan to play the sport at a higher level. Let’s be truthful about it, there are a number of kids who play youth sports just because their best friend does and it becomes a social excursion, rather than an athletic endeavor.

During one of those “equal play” years, my daughter, who not only was a three-time all-conference basketball player in high school but was offered numerous college scholarships, played only a half-quarter in some games because the team had over 20 players. Was that fair to her development?

Carrying the equal play mandate a step further, why did the same school district have first-chair trumpet players? Why didn’t all students earn As in class? Same principle — everybody is created equally.

Ok, by now you probably have grasped that I have some problem with the self-esteem movement. The reason I have problems with it is that it gives students an inaccurate picture of life. Life is successes and failures, not all successes. My biggest problem with the movement is that it instilled in students a false impression of life.

I don’t have any quarrel with building self-esteem, but giving a false sense of security is leading kids off a cliff.

The self-esteem movement fueled the notion that academic and social success-rates would increase if students had strong self-images. Advocates hoped to battle problems like teen pregnancy, suicide and violence — among other issues — by making students feel good about themselves.

“Before the expectation had been that the responsibility of learning fell on the student — that the student needed to make the effort to do the work and to study,” said Jackquelyn Veith, who teacher pedagogy at Patrick Henry College. “The self-esteem movement shifted that responsibility over to the teacher and insisted that no teacher imply students lacked effort or understanding.”

At the private college where Veith taught previously, she said, “learning had to be ‘fun.’”

Three generations later and countless empty praises later, students, Veith observed, are less responsible and teachers must feed students praise, while a fear of hurting students’ feelings undercuts discipline.

Self-esteem is realistically related to what students can and can’t do, Veith concluded, and it should be based on self-knowledge, not unwarranted praise. “The ability to be humble to accept feedback is an area that everyone can grow in — adults as well as students.”


Comments (2)
Posted by: Alan Wood | Jan 25, 2013 17:52

Excellent column.  We will suffer from the move from providing equal opportunity to ensuring equal outcomes.

Posted by: Steve Wilson | Jan 26, 2013 18:38

At the moment this body is not likely to run a mile, never mind a 4 minute mile, but what does that have to do with Self esteem? Seems there is a paradox at work in our thinking about self esteem that is as confusing as it is essential.

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