Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The False Idol of Self-Esteem

A little over 10 months ago, we featured an article here that spoke to the value of struggle. While at first glance it may seem unkind, especially in our self-esteem driven culture, many of you agreed that challenging children and students is important. One of the key points was our cultural devaluing of what it means to struggle. As quoted in the post, Jim Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA who has studied teaching and learning around the world stated "I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you're just not very smart," Stigler says. "It's a sign of low ability — people who are smart don't struggle, they just naturally get it, that's our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity." Now further research is backing up Stigler's theory and even showing how damaging our emphasis on building "self esteem" can be to children.

In New York Magazine's article "How Not To Talk to Your Kids: The inverse power of praise", writer Po Bronson investigates the affirmative culture we have worked hard to create over the past 15-20 years and sorts through the research to reveal its true effects on children. It is fascinating and, frankly, alarming.

The idea that self-esteem is of significant importance in a child's development is a relatively new idea. The theory gained prominence in 1960 when Nathaniel Branden stated in The Psychology of Self-Esteem that self-esteem was the "integrated sum of self-confidence and self-respect" and was of utmost importance in a person's development and success. Branden is crediting with bringing the idea of self-esteem to the mainstream and initiating a culture in which children were affirmed relentlessly by their parents. Children are now commonly told they are "smart" regardless of any evidence to support the claim.  

The article is worth reading in its entirety and I would highly recommend spending the time to do so. There are a few points that stood out to me and for those of you who do not have time to read the article, I will summarize here. 

First, one unforeseen consequence of this movement has been the valuing of natural intelligence over effort. Highly intelligent children who are routinely told they are smart often end up with poorly developed academic skills because effort is seen as less important than easy comprehension. As educational researcher Carol Dweck discovered "those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts."

Classrooms where an alternative approach is adopted and effort is emphasized and affirmed over natural talent have found that students ultimately perform better, are more well-rounded and empathetic, and have a higher confidence in their abilities. On the other hand "scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ 'shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.'” This seems to indicate that highly gifted children who have perceived that their value comes from this innate talent begin internalizing this belief and devote more of their energy to maintaining the idea that they are smart than to developing the skills they need to succeed academically. This can prove to be very damaging. One researcher observed that 

..research on overpraised kids strongly suggests that image maintenance becomes their primary concern—they are more competitive and more interested in tearing others down. A raft of very alarming studies illustrate this...Students turn to cheating because they haven’t developed a strategy for handling failure. The problem is compounded when a parent ignores a child’s failures and insists he’ll do better next time. Michigan scholar Jennifer Crocker studies this exact scenario and explains that the child may come to believe failure is something so terrible, the family can’t acknowledge its existence. A child deprived of the opportunity to discuss mistakes can’t learn from them.

One researcher cut through to the heart of the issue in seeing that this cult of self-esteem probably has more to do with adults' need to affirm their children's success more than the child's need for frequent praise. Children are skeptical of unearned accolades and begin questioning them as early as age seven! This shows that empty compliments do not convince young children and may just increase the pressure they feel to prove how "smart" they are while further discounting effort. Bronson puts it well: "Offering praise has become a sort of panacea for the anxieties of modern parenting. Out of our children’s lives from breakfast to dinner, we turn it up a notch when we get home. In those few hours together, we want them to hear the things we can’t say during the day—We are in your corner, we are here for you, we believe in you."

For parents who choose to educate their children at home, that pressure can be amplified. Questions ranging from whether you've made the right curriculum decisions to wondering if your child is "on-track" with his public school peers and dealing with possible disapproval from friends and relatives can cause a lot of anxiety for a homeschooling parent. Ultimately I think that this article should provide a lot of comfort to you. Encouraging hard work will ultimately pay rewards not only in the academic sphere; it builds character and a foundation of self-worth grounded in effort and work. It also removes the pressure of feeling as though your child's self-esteem is entirely dependent upon how much you affirm him or tell her she is smart. Encouraging your child's efforts (not just outcomes) will be more sincere and more valuable to that child. This sort of atmosphere will not only encourage your child to explore and create, it will make it safer for your child to make mistakes. It will make risk less scary as the emphasis will not be on finding the right answer, but in exploring problems and situations from different points-of-view, and thus coming up with solutions that are more carefully considered and understood. This will open up new opportunities for discussion and exchange and a more enriching educational experience.

I would love to hear from you! What do you think?

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  1. I think this was right on target. This is way it is important to follow you own path and falling prey to every parenting book under the sun.

  2. Helping your child develop good self-esteem has several benefits, Children with good self-esteem are also better able to deal with strong emotions, both good and bad, and to cope with challenges and frustrations when they arise.

    When helping your child self esteem's develop I have some resources that might help you http://raiseselfesteem.net.

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