Gender Paths Wind toward Self-Esteem

Article excerpt

A study tracking self-esteem and psychological adjustment in youngsters from the early teens to young adulthood finds that a healthy regard for oneself develops differently in boys and girls.

What's more, reported feelings of self-worth do not necessarily reflect psychological health, according to the new data, which will appear in the June CHILD DEVELOPMENT. For example, 14-year-old boys who expressed abundant self-esteem displayed considerable trouble in expressing their emotions and dealing effectively with others.

However, healthy self-esteem tended to increase for boys and decrease for girls during the nine-year study period.

"We're now looking closely at the possibility that there may be different types of self-esteem in our sample," says Jack Block, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Block conducted the analysis with Berkeley colleague Richard W. Robins.

A recent one-time survey of U.S. youngsters age 9 to 16 noted drops in self-esteem for girls entering adolescence that far outpace those reported by boys (SN: 3/23/91, p. 184). Other researchers who have studied children as they proceed through early adolescence cite less pronounced and often temporary self-esteem differences between boys and girls.

"It's rare for self-esteem researchers to look beyond the early adolescent years," asserts Barton J. Hirsch, a psychologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "That's what makes this new study interesting."

Block and Robins studied 47 women and 44 men, all of whom live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Each participant entered the study in 1968, at age 3. About two-thirds are white; the rest are black or Asian. Ongoing analyses have yielded clues to the development of drug use and delinquency (SN: 5/1/93, p.282).

At ages 14, 18, and 23, volunteers completed a two-part self-esteem test. First, they described themselves by grouping 43 adjectives and short phrases -- including "competitive," "creative," and "gets upset easily" -- into seven categories ranging from "most underscriptive" to "most descriptive." About one week later, they performed the same task to describe the person they would ideally like to be. The extent of agreement between the two sets of descriptions determined that person's self-esteem.

Most self-esteem studies rely on short questionnaires that make general inquiries into whether people like themselves, but fail to establish why they like themselves, Block contends. …