Still thinking about self-esteem

Published by Lori Pickert on November 19, 2008 at 04:23 PM

Many schools have gotten rid of the honor roll because it damages the self-eseem of children who don’t get on it.

My sister’s high school class had five valedictorians, because parents pitched a fit when the top student won by a tenth of a point and they felt their children had been penalized for taking extracurricular classes like band and chorus. This school had 44 valedictorians.

ScienceDaily: Parenting Styles Can Hurt Children’s Self-Esteem

Alfie Kohn: “Let me get this straight. Kids who get higher scores on standardized tests are unhappy and self-doubting, so that means we should question the importance of happiness and self-confidence, rather than the importance of these tests?” Washington Post: Self-Esteem Might Not Equal High Scores

Wikipedia page on Self-Esteem: “From the late 1970s to the early 1990s many Americans assumed as a matter of course that students' self-esteem acted as a critical factor in the grades that they earn in school, in their relationships with their peers, and in their later success in life. Given this assumption, some American groups created programs which aimed to increase the self-esteem of students. … Peer-reviewed research undertaken since then has not validated previous assumptions. Recent research indicates that inflating students’ self-esteem in and of itself has no positive effect on grades. One study has shown that inflating self-esteem by itself can actually decrease grades.”

“There is convincing evidence that people with high self-esteem are happier, as well as more likely to undertake difficult tasks and persevere in the face of failure. Other studies have failed to confirm the virtues of high self-esteem. One way to understand the divergent views is to distinguish various kinds of self-esteem. Researchers are beginning to examine differences between explicit and implicit self-esteem. The explicit form is judged by what we say about ourselves, while implicit self-esteem is measured by automatic responses, such as how we associate words that have favorable or unfavorable connotations with ourselves.” Harvard Health: Implicit vs. Explicit Self-Esteem


Comment by greenchickadee on November 19, 2008 at 07:45 PM

Thanks for reason 4287 that we will keep homeschooling. More reasons = longer time to learn at home. WE may be in this for the long haul.

Seriously, I have no words for this ridiculousness!

Comment by amy on November 19, 2008 at 08:05 PM

I like the Alfie Kohn books I've read. I really have a problem with too much praise, especially the shallow, superficial praise. An example: I signed my kids up for preschool gym classes. The instructors were big on shallow praise, ie, "Good jumping!" I watched my younger son go from a kid who loved jumping for jumping's sake to a kid who needed every jump on the trampoline to be observed and commented upon. I don't mind watching him jump, but I wanted him to retain that innate pleasure in jumping, and he lost it. He learned there was another reason to do things, that his activities weren't valid in and of themselves, or were more valid if they were judged. Not to mention, how can jumping be bad? This is not a good/bad activity. I tried to counteract the instructors' comments by saying things like, "Wow, you are really enjoying that trampoline, aren't you?" But the damage, so to speak, had been done.

I don't think it's a bad thing, as children get older, for them to learn that not everyone has the same skills. If everyone is treated the same--if there are no markers of achievement--how do kids learn their own strengths? By treating everyone equally, isn't that denying our kids pleasure in what they enjoy and do well? Aren't there ways to honor those strengths without creating competition? On the other hand, too many things are turned into a competition that don't have to be.

We homeschool, and part of the reason is because I don't want my son to connect learning with grades and judgment--I would like him to continue learning for the joy of learning as long as possible. I feel school absolutely killed that for me.

I *know* there is a balance here, but it's an elusive one. I work on it all the time.

Comment by Shellyfish on November 19, 2008 at 08:11 PM

Eliminating the Honor Roll?

This idea that "everyone is a winner" and "there are no losers", etc. is rather mysterious to me, and I must admit that I find myself scoffing at the notion that telling everyone they are great can instill a quest for excellence in anyone.

I agree that by cutting the crusts off of our childrens' social and academic lives and eliminating the distinctions which honor individuals who excel in various fields is a mis-guided attempt at making everyone feel "good". The root problem exists, Honor Roll or not. Why are we not looking at the reasons self-esteem is so important to development (emotional, intellectual, artistic, etc.) ?

My mind is buzzing with all this...great stuff!

Comment by Mary on November 19, 2008 at 08:57 PM

I think the honor roll is a silly idea, but not because I want to level the playing field or anything. I was always on the honor roll, but I happened to have the right set of skills and abilities to be able to play the school game well. I never had to work to be on the honor roll. There was nothing to be proud of because good games came naturally. I knew in school that I wasn't being challenged and I could have done better, but it didn't really bother me. Then when I got out of high school and into college and the rest of the world, I really wished I had been pushed more. In many cases, I had developed a false sense of security, thinking that I was really naturally smart and didn't have to work for things. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening!

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 19, 2008 at 09:03 PM

g.c., i hear you! but honestly, does removing them from public school completely solve the situation? amy, you point out that something similar happened in gymboree. honestly, it seems every time adults get involved in children’s activities, this becomes an issue.

amy, i wrote about praise here before, and people had some pretty strong feelings about it:

your story about “good jumping!” is such a great example of how to train kids to be dependent on praise — ugh! and it’s fairly empty praise at that! the idea that a child would stop doing something *they really enjoy* because they feel cheated if they don’t get a treat for doing it .. which is what i think this type of praise leads to .. drives me nuts. it’s another example of taking the work out of the child’s hands, stealing what belongs to them.

re: markers for achievement — ah, i could talk about this all day. you make so many important points. honor roll and the role of valedictorian used to mean something -- it set apart those students who strove to get the highest grades. but there were other ways to shine in the 1950s high school, after all -- earning your letter in a sport. i believe that has been made meaningless as well. somehow i think kids in 1950 felt really good about their achievements, because they were rewards for hard work in one area or another. whereas now, i think we’re raising praise addicts .. kids who can no longer get a high from just a “good job” or an A+.

i wrote the other day about whether kids should be allowed to play to their strengths .. to me, that is honoring their differences. i got an interesting e-mail in response from a reader who said we were doing a disservice to our children if we didn’t give them experience “in everything”, as we couldn’t possibly predict what their talents and interests might be when they were adults. my -- everything you say? that’s quite a tall order. i’m afraid education may be suffering from trying to lightly skate over way too much material without ever letting kids dig in deep enough to find out *what* they might be good at or what they might enjoy.

re: your aim to not have your son connect learning with grades and judgment .. i’m totally with you there, and i think that it is completely useless anyway to raise children to get their self-worth from beating their competition. after all, who’s to say that their sixth-grade peers are the same as a random group of sixth-graders from another city or another state? just because you’re “the best” in this class doesn’t mean you’d be the best in the next county, in Japan, or in your chosen field as an adult. isn’t the only person worth competing with *yourself*?

it’s ridiculous, as you are saying, shelly, to say that if all kids feel *good*, they will all achieve. if everyone is a winner, what does that even mean? who defines what the race is? only the child, and the adult, can define for themselves what they think is meaningful to them, and only they should decide when they feel they are giving their all and when they have achieved when they set out to do.

that is what i meant when i talked in monday’s post about *authentic* self-esteem .. it’s not that i don’t want my kids to feel good about themselves. i just want them to have *true* feelings of achievement .. you know, based on *actual achievement*. :^P

“The essence of our effort to see that every child has a chance must be to assure each an equal opportunity, not to become equal, but to become different — to realize whatever unique potential of body, mind and spirit he or she possesses.” — John Fischer

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 19, 2008 at 09:12 PM

mary, yes! that is exactly what i was trying to say .. that someone comes in from the outside and presents you with this outside approval and recognition .. but is it meaningful to *you*? and if not, how does that affect you? i was on the honor roll, too, and it meant nothing to me either. but i remember that my school changed the rules because some parents were complaining .. the school changed the rules so all these extra students were inducted into the honor society .. which made it even *more* meaningless. did the kids care, or was it just the parents? i don’t even know.

“good jumping!”

Comment by Mary on November 19, 2008 at 09:23 PM

Do the rest of you struggle with putting these ideas into practice?

I have been finding myself saying, "good job" about lots of things with my almost 3-y.o. nephew as he is learning lots of new skills these days. Even though I *know* it's not helpful, the words come out so instinctively!

I don't have as difficult of a time with my 10 y.o. son, but that could be because while he is learning and growing every day, the progress isn't so obvious/in your face as with my nephew. Much more is going on internally with him, which is equally important. When he's surrounded by family members constantly praising the little ones for their new skills, I think it is easier for him to get discouraged about his growth because he's not being praised all the time. I don't want them to start praising him for praise's sake, but I don't want him to develop a complex over it either. He's almost 8 years older than his oldest cousin, so he's kind of in his own little world!

Comment by Amy-Domestic An... on November 19, 2008 at 09:54 PM

OK. SO. This got me to thinking. Mostly about what esteem means, to me. It means to value something, to see its worth, to have regard and respect for something. How did I get there myself?
By learning that caring for myself felt so much better than hurting myself. That I could be endlessly powerful, but that it meant stepping outside the lines, and redefining power. It was not easy. Not the path I want for my children. I want them to hit the ground running, or, if they are sitting, to be perfectly content with that posture!
And now here I am, a mother. WIth a child that is a not a nest of hurt.
So I resolved to teach him to care for himself, To listen to his body. To listen to his heart. To speak his truth. To negotiate his space with that of others. I try to make room to hear it. To show these things by doing the same.
I so whole-heartedly agree that our social "markers" are now meaningless, though I too believe they once had great value to those who worked hard for them, whatever their motivation. It's absolutely related to this intense anxiety I sense about not wanting our children to fail, which you have discussed wisely here before. I have to say, Benen fails, DAILY. I mean, not to be harsh, he has many triumphs too, but failure is a great teacher in our home. She's not a bad thing. I try to work with her as an ally, both in my own life and in his.
I have some friends who are "chronic underachievers". They are content. They are a joy to be with. They accomplish much in their lives that is rich and loving and beautiful, and they just fly under the radar of what is socially "normal", and they are the most internally motivated people I know. Every year I slide a little closer to them, a little further down the honor roll. I started at the top, so it is a long slide. The further down I drip the happier I am.
I guess, too, that where you land as a parent in this whole achievement dialogue has a lot to do with what YOU esteem. I always remind myself of this when I encounter concerns about our approach to learning and being. For me, this is hugely about being clear in my mind about what we value.
So much to consider here. Excellent discussion, thank you.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 19, 2008 at 10:50 PM

mary, gosh yes, and so many people have shared that here -- that even when they know intellectually “good job” isn’t very meaningful etc. etc., it’s so hard to stop doing it. especially when you’re really thinking about it, because you catch yourself doing it so often!

as usual, i think the important thing is simply to be aware of it and try to, as much as possible, say meaningful things when necessary, and stay out of the way when that’s best. :^)

amy, do you think maybe i beat the drum of “let your children fail” a little too much? ;^) i just see it as an absolutely necessary component to building authentic self-esteem .. a true sense of self. being okay with the fact that we are human and mistakes are inevitable; being able to accept that and move on! move on to the good stuff .. how enjoyable life is, how enjoyable meaningful work is, how enjoyable it is to communicate with one another.

i have some loved under-the-radar people, too. this, to me, brings up a couple of things. i want my children to grow up to define success for themselves .. but i also don’t want them to be afraid of failure and therefore afraid of success. some people *appear* to under-achieve because they are marching to the beat of their own drummer, which i whole-heartedly celebrate. but some people truly under-achieve because they are afraid to put themselves out there, afraid to embarrass themselves, afraid to fail. i would rather fail doing something i care about than succeed doing something easy for me .. i want the same thing for my children.

re: being clear about what we value .. so true .. absolutely. we need to take time to think about these things! are we making choices for our children that match up with our values? our goals for their lives as adults? that‘s what this thought process is all about for me. reflecting on our choices, and knowing that we are free to change if we need to.

Comment by se7en on November 19, 2008 at 11:23 PM

Intense post, and intense responses - I find it really interesting that kids who get a heap of "artificial" praise are so much less able than kids who get the genuine thing... I guess that goes for all of life. Certainly by seeking to give every kid in the class a prize takes away from the achievement of a child who has excelled... It doesn't level the playing field, it just lowers the goal post.

Also I do a lot of parties (with my se7en!) and you can no longer play any games that produce any kind of winner or loser, without the whole thing falling apart, not necessarily for the kids but certainly for the go getter parents who are standing by. I don't think people realize how important for kids it is to figure that there will always be some folk ahead of them and some folk behind them in all areas of life... I really want my kids to learn this gently when they are young, rather than when they arrive in the world of adults and discover this truth the hard way.

Comment by skye on November 19, 2008 at 11:45 PM

This is so good for me to read. I was put down alot as a child and I think I've swung the other way with my own kids and now I do notice how they want me to notice and praise what they are doing. Sometimes the line is hard to find because you want to show that you value their effort and attempts and yet don't want them to always need outward recognition to make what their doing meaningful .So much to think about..

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 20, 2008 at 12:17 AM

se7en, there are no winners! there are no losers! look away, look away! adults forget that no matter what they say, kids *always* know .. who is getting the best grades, who runs the fastest, who is most popular, etc. etc. etc. another reason to stop worrying about broadcasting messages to the crowd and work on teaching your own child to cope with disappointment and be able to enjoy what’s good in their life.

and yes — this topic always elicits an intense response! :^)

skye, yes .. another time when we have to feel around for the right balance .. of course we want to express how much we value and love our children, but just as you say, not in a way that trains them to need praise. agreed, so much to think about!

Comment by Kerry on November 20, 2008 at 03:59 AM

First of all....I cannot believe this valedictorian thing, I have to say I had no idea this was going on! Kids need to have expectations, not too many as to create a lot of stress, but just enough to keep them motivated and trying. All of this false self esteem pretty much takes the wind out of kids' sails - why try hard when you don't have to? I just read about self esteem today as I was working on the thesis:
"...contrary to popular wisdom, increasing children's self-esteem is not always a good idea - especially if it is achieved by lowering their expectations." - Written by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi more than 10 years ago! (I wonder what he thinks now!)

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 20, 2008 at 04:53 PM

kerry, i know, right? at what point does “valedictorian” become meaningless? i think at 44 of them.

i love m.c. -- and that quote is right on the money! if we have to lower expectations to make kids feel good .. that helps them how?

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