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 and 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.
It's not hard to imagine how teachers and parents have come to believe that improving self-esteem is important. The idea of increasing students' sense of self-worth, of improving their respect and confidence in their own being, certainly has merit. And surely everyone, at some time or other, has been the beaming recipient of the magical power of encouragement — of praise given for a job well done or for a solid effort made.
Aren't self-esteem programs just a natural extension of the venerable idea of encouragement, which has always played a central role in good teaching and sound parenting?
Well, not exactly.
The problem with the idea of self-esteem as currently applied in the field of education, is the problem of a truth distorted and exaggerated out of all proportion to its proper place in the healthy development of children.
Examples of self-esteem extremism are everywhere. A kindergarten teacher invites youngsters to announce their self-admiration as a part of a course called “I Like Me” (“I like me because of my Yankee's hat!” “I like me because of my hair!”).
One dumbfounded parent reported how her teenage daughter arrived home with a certificate of recognition for future achievement. The girl was being encouraged to feel good about great things she hadn't even done yet.
In addition to continually reminding students how wonderful and important they are, teachers who want to build their students' self-esteem are expected to carefully avoid the slightest whiff of criticism.
I remember being informed — very forcefully, mind you — at a workshop for Catholic teachers, that we weren't to put Xs beside wrong answers on student papers any more, that doing so would damage our students' sense of themselves. From now on only positive and encouraging remarks on tests and papers would be allowed.
Now that's what I call avoiding the slightest whiff of criticism.
Unlike our older understanding of encouragement, the self-esteem experts inform us that praise should not be linked to performance, since this would raise the possibility of failure, which would only perpetuate low self-esteem. As a consequence, in order to raise students' self-regard many schools today have been willing to lower standards, make classes easier, inflate grades and even eliminate the idea of failure entirely.
One big problem with all of this, of course, is that it isn't the real world. “In the real world, praise has to be the reward for something worthwhile. Praise must be connected to reality,” says psychologist Paul Vitz of New York University. Confidence without justification can easily become a form of arrogance. “The building up of self-esteem unrelated to real accomplishment is very likely to simply make a person overconfident, narcissistic and unable to work hard,” says Vitz.
It was not uncommon in the school where I taught for the staff to have to deal with problem parents whose natural parenting skills had been badly compromised by self-esteem theory. They refused to discipline their misbehaving and sometimes violent children for fear it would hurt their child's self-esteem. Believing the cause of their child's acting out was low self-esteem and that the remedy was gentle and positive encouragement, rather than the older notion of tough love, it was not uncommon for these parents to side with their children against teachers and administrators trying to bring their child into line with entirely appropriate disciplinary measures.
Siding with the kids against the teachers, I was told by the older members of the staff, was almost unheard-of in days gone by; and in a number of cases it made our job virtually impossible.
Certainly little children need loads of encouragement, but as kids reach the age of reason reality needs to be gradually and charitably introduced.
From a Catholic point of view, the kind of manipulation advocated by the self-esteem movement plays complete havoc with the spiritual life of the child. Only on the basis of knowing the truth about oneself, along with hope and trust in God, can real progress in the spiritual life take place.
I'll never forget the late Father John Hardon's succinct Catholic definition of self-esteem: “A realistic appraisal of one's strengths and weaknesses, and the attributing of one's strengths to God and one's weaknesses to oneself.”
It is hardly surprising that thousands of psychological studies have failed to demonstrate that high self-esteem reliably causes anything—at least anything desirable.
While many highly successful people suffer from low self-esteem, many others with high self-esteem feel good about themselves simply because they are rich, beautiful or socially well-connected.
It has been demonstrated that inner-city drug dealers exhibit high self-esteem. That seems natural enough; after all they have been successful in making a lot of money in a hostile and highly competitive environment.
Contrary to what the theory predicts—that high self-esteem will correlate positively with academic achievement—racial studies show black males have the highest self-esteem, followed by black females, white males and finally white females. The exact opposite of what one would expect if the theory were true.
It also turns out that aggressive and violent men have remarkably high self-esteem. Leading at least one researcher to question whether increasing self-esteem might not actually increase violent behavior.
Which all raises the question: Why have we imposed this superficial understanding of self-esteem on millions of kids and their teachers if there is no research evidence that it does what it is supposed to do? Why are we using our kids as guinea pigs for the latest fad in educational psychology?
And while we're at it, why aren't the psychologists who think this stuff up ever required to read Aristotle? Aristotle understood very well that bad things happen when good ideas are taken to an extreme.
In sum then, the notion of self-esteem is a serious distortion of the proper role of encouragement and praise in the character development of children and is not an idea Christians should have anything to do with.
J. Fraser Field is executive officer of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center (http://www.catholiceducation.org).