Magazine article USA TODAY

Self-Esteem: The Myth of Feeling Good about Oneself

Magazine article USA TODAY

Self-Esteem: The Myth of Feeling Good about Oneself

Article excerpt

No one would argue that children thrive when they feel respected, important, and cared for by other persons, or that they falter when they lack the self-pride and self-confidence that accompanies such approval and support. However, at the hands of educators eager to encourage lagging pupils, a myth has developed that raising youngsters' self-esteem is a sure means of improving their levels of achievement and solving many of the nation's social ills.

The 1990 report of the California Task Force to Promote Personal and Social Responsibility, for instance, proposes that "Self-esteem is the likeliest candidate for a `social vaccine,' something that empowers us to live responsibly and that inoculates us against the lure of crime, violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse, chronic welfare dependency, and educational failure. The lack of self-esteem is central to more personal and social ills plaguing our state and nation as we approach the end of the twentieth century."

If, indeed, high self-esteem is a precondition for learning and a panacea for so many social problems, it would be foolish to disagree with proponents such as Jack Canfield, author of popular books about self-esteem, who suggests that courses enhancing it are the "major missing link to educational reform in America today," or Robert Reasoner of the California Center for Self-esteem, who concludes that emphasis on it "may well be our only hope for a better world." This focus on the importance of self-esteem occurs so widely in current educational and popular writings that its momentum has created what some call the self-esteem movement - the practice of supplying positive feedback regardless of the quality of performance.

Efforts to convince the public of the importance of positive self-regard are not new. More than a century ago, followers of French psychotherapist Emile Coua proclaimed that "Every day in every way I am getting better and better." More recently, the power of positive thinking and positive reinforcement has been promoted by writers such as Norman Vincent Peale, Nathaniel Branden, and B.F. Skinner. A happy, productive life was assured, if only people would accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

By the 1960s, following the advent of the self-actualization theories of personal growth espoused by psychologists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, interest in enhancing self-esteem as a path to accomplishment got under way in the nation's schools. Since then, dozens of "how-to" books have described ways for improving children's positive feeling about themselves. If the responses of others make me feel good about myself, the argument goes, I will be motivated, convinced of my ability to learn, and launched on a path to a successful life. The theory is simple: Feeling good is a necessary predecessor of accomplishment.

Despite its current popularity, questions can be raised about the assumptions underlying the self-esteem movement. For example, what benefit does a third-grader gain in learning to copy the words, "I am Terri. I love and approve of myself," if she otherwise can not write an intelligible sentence? Would it help Terri to learn to tell herself, "I am smart," "I am a good student," or "I am me and I am enough" - all forms of the "affirmative language" espoused by Douglas Bloch and Jon Merritt in their book, Positive Self-talk for Children?

Does it really enhance the self-esteem of members of the fifth-grade baseball team - or improve their athletic skill - when everyone is awarded a trophy, despite the fact that the team did not win a single game in this year's schedule or show noticeable improvement throughout the season? What effect will this have on next year's efforts when this record of performance ends with apparent approval and satisfaction?

Does hearing classmates recite from a list of nice things to say to each other - such as "You brighten my day," "I'm lucky to know you," or "You're a good buddy" - convey a sincere message or one that is perceived as being artificial or "weird"? …

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