Self Esteem or Self-Discipline in Schools

Those who have been praised their entire lives will be hard-pressed to kneel in praise of another.

Caravaggio (1571-1610), “Narcissus”
Caravaggio (1571-1610), “Narcissus” (photo: Public Domain)

Do you want your child at a school that merely works to ensure your child feels better about themselves or one that urges them to actually better themselves? The answer could decide where you send your child to school.

The self-esteem movement, which has been the celebrated central mission of many schools throughout our country, both public and private; secular and religious, has its roots in Ayn Rand’s Obectivism, an atheistic philosophy which eschews sacrifice and kindness. The father of the self-esteem movement, Nathaniel Branden, was a Rand acolyte who originally published many chapters of his foundational work “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” in Rand’s newsletter.

That movement has since evolved into decades of classroom-based social engineering which scorn concepts of sin, standards, shame, and self-discipline. What has that brought us? The No Child Left Un-Whined curriculum has bequeathed unto us generations of social activists shrieking about transforming the world with little interest in changing themselves.

As a father of five, I couldn’t conceive of a more malevolent lesson than teaching children that any criticism of themselves is a sign of a sick society which is desperately in need of the healing that only Generation Them can bring.

Taking stock of the past fifty years, we can ascertain that the self-esteem movement in schools hasn’t improved academic performance or reduced anti-social behavior. Grade promotion has become the equivalent of the academic participation trophy. And how many young people have been assured that every time they’ve gotten in trouble at school it’s the teacher’s fault or that they’re just not understood? Let’s be honest, when schools teach that nothing is ever wrong, further lessons are impossible.

But thankfully, there are alternatives for parents hoping for better. The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial recently titled “The Catholic School Difference” that elaborated on a study conducted for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute by University of California-Santa Barbara associate professor Michael Gottfried and doctoral student Jacob Kirksey about how Catholic schools, as opposed to other schools, have been particularly effective in nurturing self-discipline among students.

The authors compared children in Catholic schools with those in other schools and discovered that “Catholic school children argued, fought, got angry, acted impulsively, and disturbed ongoing activities less frequently,” than others.

In fact, students in Catholic schools “were more likely to control their temper, respect others’ property, accept their fellow students’ ideas, and handle peer pressure.”

The Journal concludes that “the correlation is strong between the focus that Catholic schools put on self-discipline and better student behavior.”


First: “Schools that value and focus on self discipline will likely do a better job of fostering it in children.” If other schools “took self discipline as seriously as Catholic schools do, they wouldn’t have to spend as much time, energy and political capital on penalizing students” for bad behavior.

Second: “Assuming that these results reflect a ‘Catholic Schools Effect,’ other schools might consider both explicit and implicit methods to replicate it.” The report notes that some “no excuses” charter schools are already doing this, through the curriculum or the way students interact with adults and teachers who model self-discipline themselves.

Third: “Don’t underestimate the power of religion to positively influence a child’s behavior.” Religion isn’t the only way to foster self-discipline, the authors emphasize, but it’s effective compared to most of the alternatives in channeling youthful energy into productive self-control.

So the question must be asked - What is it about Catholic schools that’s more effective in teaching self-discipline? I would suggest that for starters, good Catholic schools are more focused on self-discipline rather than self-esteem.

Just an observation, those who have been praised their entire lives will be hard pressed to kneel in praise of another. But there’s also this - Catholic schools, at least some of them, still teach about sin. Insert gasp here. When children learn that they were conceived with original sin, they are also taught gratitude to Jesus who died on the cross to save them. They learn that people are their neighbors to be loved, not merely obstacles to be manipulated towards the creation of a utopia. They are taught the proper balance of rights and responsibility, freedom and duty. They are taught to seek the human experience of love, sin, grace, and redemption.

A Catholic school which teaches young people that they are born with original sin and must look to God’s grace for salvation will likely get very different results than a secular institution which tells children that every whim, urge, and feeling they’ve ever had is owed validation by the world.

The former helps to form servants who have mastered themselves, the latter creates tyrants who seeks to master servants.

The public school system, and sadly many nominally Catholic schools, teach children that the only sin is reminding others that they are sinners.

I can’t help but ponder, if a school’s Catholicism is helpful to teach children self-discipline then how much better is a school that takes its Catholic identity seriously? Yet oddly, (or maybe not so oddly) it is those very schools that seem most under attack from secular progressives.

The authors of the study say it is a “tragedy for the nation” that so many Catholic schools continue to close when they are most needed. I would argue that a far greater tragedy is that so many Catholic schools seem so intent on mirroring their failing secular counterparts.