Of course, in spite of the experts’ insistence they are “cutting-edge” innovators, they’re often reluctant to abandon ideas they’ve long embraced and propounded—even if those ideas don’t work. So twenty-something years after its initial appearance, the specter of bestowing self-esteem as a motivator still haunts the classroom. But thanks to books and articles I’ve read lately, I sense the ghost can soon be laid to its final rest.
I’m sure we all have memories of the fire-breathing, draconic teacher who managed the classroom through heavy-handed intimidation. I’m certainly not advocating that method. But, surely, somewhere between tyrannical teaching and feeding undeserving egos, a middle road exists.
I’m not a psychologist (never even played one on TV), but I’ve read a lot on this subject, trying to make sense of the nonsensical. Two works on which I’m drawing to write this post are the book Generation Me, by Jean M. Twenge, Ph. D and an article in the Wall Street Journal by Sue Shellenbarger, dated February 27, 2013. Based on my personal experience as a parent and teacher and based on what I’ve read, the following suggestions are some of my ideas for a balanced approach to instilling confidence, not hyper-inflated egotism, in children.
First and foremost, realize the operative word in self-esteem is self. It should be earned, not bestowed. High self-esteem is not a cause, a means of producing better results. It’s an effect, a result of having worked hard to achieve an admirable goal. I’m not saying children actually have to achieve that goal. They just need to know they did their best in order to take satisfaction in their effort. And kids are smart. They know when they don’t deserve that trophy, gold star, high grade, praise, etc.
Allow children to feel bad about themselves sometimes. If they’ve been mean or hurtful or dishonest, they probably should feel bad. It doesn’t mean they can never be forgiven or have to carry guilt for the remainder of their lives. And it doesn’t mean we withhold love from them. But that uncomfortable feeling can be a goad to correct a misdeed or a deterrent to future bad behavior. Several years ago I read that only the criminally insane have continually high levels of self-esteem.
Recognize that no one is good at everything. When we suggest that all children have done all things equally well by handing out blanket rewards, we diminish the special skills or talents of some and discourage hard work and perseverance. (Before you start objecting, read my next point.)
Acknowledge that everyone does something well. The “Good Sportsmanship Trophy” has often been the butt of jokes. But you know what? Over the long haul, the ability to encourage others or handle disappointment with grace or perspective might well be a more valuable life-skill than throwing a mean curve-ball. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging skills such as those—as long as you don’t give a good sportsmanship trophy to everyone on the team.
Do give encouragement. There is a difference between giving encouragement and doling out self-esteem. Encouragement develops self-control and self-discipline—two assets that will serve a child exceedingly better than a trumped-up sense of entitlement.
I’ve already overshot my word limit on this post by about two hundred words, but I can’t close without making this final point. If my suggestions sound uncaring or mean-spirited, consider the full title of Twenge’s book: Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before.