Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Let's Put the "Self" Back in Self-Esteem

            I began my teaching career in the mid-1980s, about the same time the self-esteem movement began to sweep through education. I struggled for years with that concept, torn between what I was observing first-hand in my classroom and what the education “experts” were telling me I should be observing (experts being those persons with lots of educational theories but little or no actual classroom experience). Then one day in the mid-1990s in the school library, the cover of a Psychology Today magazine caught my eye. The headline: “The Ten Worst Educational Theories of the Last Ten Years.” Hallelujah! The self-esteem theory made the list.
            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.
            Your thoughts?
          

10 comments:

  1. As a parent, I want to give my children everything. But you know what? I've learned they appreciate what they have when they earn it. As a teacher I knew this, but somewhere along the parenting journey I forgot. My son's first little bike was earned because he potty trained himself in five days--he had an accident on day two and had to earn three days in a row to get the bike. Only recently did a light bulb go on again and connect having a chore chart and responsibility with his self-esteem. He is more helpful and more polite now that we have a chore chart, and he is working hard to earn items I could easily buy him. Instead, he's earning them and he will cherish them rather than leave them in the rain or kick them to the back of the closet. Thanks for the reminder, Dee Dee.

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    1. Good for you, Brandi! It takes a great deal of restraint not to give our children everything we can afford to. Nothing is wrong with the occasional gift, but a wise parent knows the joy and appreciation of something earned far outlasts the temporary thrill of something given.

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  2. I needed to read this back when I was teaching. I appreciate everything you say! (Especially in hindsight.)

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    1. Sonia, I would like to have known some of this myself when I was teaching. The Love and Logic series did bring the voice of sanity to education in my later teaching years, and it was a godsend!

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  3. I am glad someone is starting to get it. I am glad kidz are more enlisted and involved so they can experience things that only a few experienced before. But There has to be a winner and a loser so we can learn our own strengths and weaknesses and so we can strive harder for our strengths and not put ourselves down if we aren't "like" everybody else. Balance is the key. I only wish I could have articulated what you have here. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you, Tawnya. You make some very good points as well. And thank you for visiting my blog!

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  4. Ah - you've hit upon a pet peeve of mine! Uncorrected spelling, not keeping score in sports, everybody gets a trophy. We are setting kids up to fail later in life. Where did 'shame' go? I'm not advocating letters carved into one's forehead, but an in-the-moment consequence to wrong-doing served many of us well!

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  5. This post reminded me of a something that happened when I was teaching in Maine, DeeDee. An exceptional education student got a job at a local gas station. The owner was very specific about his expectations that employees are on time for work. He told the student the first time he was late, he would get a warning. If it happened a second time, he was finished.

    The student went to work late one day in the first week, and his boss gave him a warning. The second week he showed up late again, and his boss told him not to punch in; he was finished. The student replied, "You can't do that. We have to have an IEP meeting first!"

    One of the things I liked about teaching in the virtual environment was students were required to produce. I would tell them during our introductory chat that unlike in brick and mortar schools, they wouldn't get credit for sitting in the seat. Sadly, recent generations of students are getting a rude awakening as attempt to compete in a global workplace.

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