Below is my answer to the Quora question, "What are…
Today’s post is all about self-esteem, the misuse of the concept by adults, and how it is doled out indiscriminately to children. Often to everyone’s detriment. I base what I have to say on my experience as a teacher, working with children and adults. And what I have to say is this, self-esteem is overrated.
I understand it’s a broad statement, but hear me out. When I left the early education sector last year, things were very different to what they where when I’d started eight years prior.
When I started I was mostly running musical education programs, only to be told by the end, that the ‘education’ side to some of my programs was no longer relevant to my job. This was largely because of a shift in what some parents were wanting i.e. more ‘free play’, less ‘teaching’.
In other areas of my work, things are changing too. Singing students who want to be famous for the sake of being famous are a dime a dozen; students who actually put in the work required to develop a skill, not so much.
And that is the thing, we have this strange growing culture of people who want to be special, for no other merit than the fact that they exist. And this is where I have a problem with the ‘self esteem movement’.
This isn’t at all to poo-poo young people, nor the idea that feeling good about oneself isn’t important, I believe it is. However I see certain things getting worse, and I want to put my two cents in. Not only as a teacher, but as a former business owner too.
My experience as an employer was this. You’d get some employees who act, or even out right say, they are doing you a favor by working for you. Sure, they seem to completely forget the part where you’re paying them for their work, but you get my point. You go out of your way to create job opportunities, i.e. more money, for said employee and they take on a ‘pick and choose’ attitude towards this work. Ultimately, as an employer, you sit back and wonder why you bother.
What many are being taught about self-esteem and self-worth, versus what is functional in the real world, are two different things.
And as a teacher I found there was a growing dislike for being rewarded for merit, in favour of rewards for rewards sake. Not only are we expected to tell children they are the special “just because”. But you also start to see children’s sports games being held with the intention of having no winners (or alternatively, where everyone wins), or you get games where there’s no scoring for fear of hurting someone’s ‘self esteem’.
“They’re (children) going to come out of school with very high expectations and a very high opinion of themselves, and reality isn’t going to fit. And the problem with reality is it’s going to win. Reality always wins.
And some of them will adapt and make things work, and a lot of them will be unhappy. And feel disconnected from others, and depressed, and isolated.” –Keith Campbell, Professor of Psychology *
Our key goal as parents, educators and human beings, is to be (or to raise) fully functional individuals who can self actualize and contribute to the greater community.
“When we start telling people, you’re special, you’re different, you’re unique; that’s producing narcissism a little more than it’s producing self esteem. It’s not like we’re having kids saying, ‘I have worth, I have some basic dignity, I have respect like all people – all people are equal’. That’s not causing narcissism, specialness is.” – Keith Campbell, Professor of Psychology*
So my question is, amidst all of this ‘specialness’, where does resilience fit in? Because I cannot tell you how many students, child or adult, walk into my classroom frustrated because they are not ‘the best’ already. I haven’t even started teaching and they are already feeling pressure to be good. Not only does the self-esteem movement tell people they are good without the required effort to be so, but it also leads to disappointment and a hesitance to try, when they are not good right away.
And as Professor Campbell states, reality rarely ever matches the picture painted. What happens when these children move into the workforce? As a former employer, I can tell you. They either do not get hired because we will see right away they will be difficult to work with. Alternatively they may be hired, however their weak work ethic will lead to a stagnant career. Or we’ll get sick of them and eventually fire them (not exactly encouraging to the self-esteem, right?).
And of course there will be the few who smarten up. They will realize ‘special’ needs to be earned, and start walking the hard road to success, which isn’t served to them on a silver platter like they were led to believe.
And there in lies the rub. Amidst all the ‘specialness’ and self-esteem, there are a number of highly fulfilling lessons being missed.
These lessons are…
There is nothing wrong with being just like everyone else.
In fact this realization can be a huge relief. This doesn’t mean one cannot exceed expectations, but there is a sense of connection you receive from knowing you have similarities with others. That you can identify, empathize and share experiences.
There is nothing wrong with plodding success.
One might argue the long fight for achievement is far more fulfilling than easily won battles. I would even go so far to say earning your worth is a good remedy to ‘low self esteem’. When I look back on my life, when I feel down; seeing that I beat the odds, because I worked my butt off is an instant mood lifter.
Failure is not the be all and end all.
Failure is a great teacher in life. To remove the concept of losing from schoolyards and work places, diminishes this lesson. It makes it harder for individuals to glean the lesson that failure won’t kill you. Failure is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.
Moreover, from this humble lay person’s opinion, the best thing you can do for yourself, and if you have them, children; is to understand that a high self-esteem is not the predictor of success, good life choices and happiness. There are even studies to support this notion.
“Findings even suggest that artiﬁcially boosting self-esteem may lower performance.… Young people with high self-esteem are more prone to disregard risks and engage in sex.” – source
On the contrary, a false sense of ‘specialness’ can lead to unmotivated, stressed and depressed people. Take it from someone who has managed to turn around ‘trouble children’. The best thing for anyone is praise for actual achievements or actual effort, and not simply for being.
Help your children (and yourself) by developing the idea of having a tough skin, to work hard for what is wanted, and to be prepared to fail. Because the cold reality is, the world does not care for people who are ‘special’, it cares for people who have something to offer.
Hope you enjoyed today’s post. I love reading and responding to everyone’s comments, so feel free to leave a comment of your own.
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*Reference Souce: Penn & Teller: Bullshit, Season 8, Episode 9 – Self Esteem