One of the most dominant articles of faith pervading the modern curriculum is the notion that children can't achieve and won't succeed unless they have high self-esteem.

In parochial as well as public schools, in reading and writing, in health class and on the sports field, making students feel good about themselves has become a foundational goal in the modern classroom.

Yet thousands of psychological studies have failed to demonstrate that high self-esteem reliably causes anything — or, at least, anything desirable. In fact, some researchers are even suggesting that the “I love me” movement has done real harm to kids, families and education in general. Having seen the effects at close hand, I tend to agree.

So does Paul Vitz, professor of psychology at New York University, the most authoritative Catholic voice on the new psychological faiths. With regard to self-esteem, Vitz believes educational psychology has the cart before the horse.

“Self-esteem should be understood as a response, not as a cause,” he wrote in Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship (Eerdmans, 1994). “[L]ike happiness, and like love, self-esteem is almost impossible to get by trying to get it. Try to acquire self-esteem and you will fail — but do good to others and accomplish something for yourself, and you will have all the self-esteem you need.”

In the Catholic school where I taught for seven years, our staff regularly commented on the fact that, every new school year, the kids coming in seemed less able to work in a sustained and concentrated manner and, by and large, exhibited poorer self-control and less civility. Because of this, teaching was becoming more difficult — class-management and behavioral problems were stealing a larger and larger amount of time and energy from instructional time. In addition, a number of previously unheard-of problems were cropping up.

Probably the most difficult of these was that of “problem parents.” In previous times, parents almost always supported teachers in their administration of discipline. Now, more and more, parents were raising strong objections to the entirely appropriate and relatively mild disciplinary efforts of teachers and administrators to bring unruly children into line.

One didn't have to listen long to realize that the natural instincts of parents were being overridden and corrupted by the ideology of self-esteem. Parents of some of the worst-behaved kids we had were insisting that their child's acting out was the result of poor self-esteem and required not discipline — what in a saner age was called “tough love” — but more support, encouragement and “understanding”.

As anyone who works with kids will tell you, it doesn't take long for some kids to figure out the lay of the land and begin working the system.

I remember one little girl I had in grade four. Let's call her Shelley. Despite the fact that Shelley was blessed with above-average intelligence and ability, she had failed two tests in a row in social studies. I watched her response as I handed back her third test — also with a failing grade marked on it. Without a word, tears filled her eyes and Shelley ran into the cloakroom, crying. I went after her, spoke to her gently and, after a minute or so, led her back into class. I told Shelley I wanted to speak to her and her mother during the lunch period.

After the bell rang, Shelley stood with me outside my classroom as the girl's mother walked up and greeted me warmly. Shelley was still upset as I explained to her mother what had happened. I told her how Shelley had responded after having failed her third test.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” Mom asked her daughter.

“I don't know what to say,” said Shelley. “Somehow I just don't feel good about myself these days. I don't seem to like myself anymore.”

I didn't know what would happen at this point. I had no clue as to how her mother would respond.

“That's a bunch of nonsense,” said Mom. “You didn't study.”

A parent with proper perspective — what a relief! “Your daily work hasn't been up to the standard I know you're capable of,” I said when the mother turned to me as if giving me permission to continue her point. “If you had felt good about yourself even though you hadn't done your job I would say you have a serious problem. Now why don't you get down to business, do the job you're capable of, and get a good mark on the next test?”

Good teachers and good parents show their love by caring enough to use discipline and by telling kids the truth. That's what kids need and that's what kids ultimately want. That's also why, in many high schools, the most-admired teachers, and the best-respected, are the athletic coaches — the authority figures who expect performance and rarely worry about self-esteem.

With a Godly context, a little “reality therapy,” some encouragement and the firm refusal of both her mother and her teacher to let her off the hook, I believe Shelley learned an important lesson that day.

I remember her looking excited and a little anxious as I handed back her fourth test. Then Shelley looked up at me from her desk, beaming and proud, as she saw the mark and realized she'd “aced” the test. Her good work had resulted in a natural sense of pride in her hard-earned accomplishment — in other words, a rightly ordered sense of heightened self-esteem.

J. Fraser Field is executive officer of the Catholic Educator's Resource

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