There’s a growing body of research that suggests that the self-esteem movement that’s dominated education systems for the past few decades might, in fact, be holding students back. Parents with reasonable estimations about their children’s abilities and homes swamped with participation trophies have suspected this for some time. In fact, we could all use our common sense to figure out that people who are really good at things don’t get that way by thinking they’re already good enough. Common sense often doesn’t get a lot of traction in the education system, however. Fortunately, we never have to rely on our own common sense to tell us the obvious. We have scientific studies for that.
Self-esteem is discussed like it’s the mark of good mental health and the standard for psychological development. Feeling good about yourself hasn’t just been linked to better physical and mental well-being, better life prospects, etc. It’s been presented as a prerequisite for those things, just like low self-esteem has been seen as the cause of depression, anxiety, poor mental and physical health and poor mental performance. The problem with this idea is that it’s not true.
In their study “Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, Or Healthier Lifestyles?” (spoiler alert: the answer is no), Roy Baumeister, Jennifer Campbell et al. analyze the scientific literature on self-esteem. Well, they went into the study intending to talk about how/why self-esteem causes all the things the title suggests. Instead, when they went through the literature on the subject, they discovered that most previous research on the correlations between self-esteem and performance measures those correlations via self-reporting. ALL of this research finds that study participants who have high self-esteem also tend to report that they do well in school, work and life. We’re seeing the problem, right? There’s no objective proof that such correlations exist. The conclusions researchers drew about those correlations are based entirely on the testimony of possible megalomaniacs. And we built educational practices out of it.
Baumeister, Campbell et al. remind us that because self-esteem is entirely subjective, it “does not carry any definitional requirement of accuracy whatsoever.” One person’s low self-esteem could be “an accurate, well-founded understanding of one’s shortcomings as a person,” say the authors. In fact, in America the “average person regards himself or herself as above average,” which statistically speaking, simply can’t be true.
Other research explains that self-esteem is a very culturally specific value. Thomas Cottle argues that the concept of self-esteem is linked to dominant liberal ideologies, and that the emphasis on high self-regard neglects the fact that nobody is self-sufficient—that “most of us rely on other people merely to stay alive.” Focusing on how well an individual student does encourages them to see their accomplishments as theirs and theirs alone, without paying any attention to the other people and things that enabled their progress. It perpetuates the liberal myth that achievements are the result of individuals, when in reality no achievement is ever made alone.
There are several practical ways that high self-esteem stifles the learning process. Streams of unearned, unjustified praise are unhelpful, especially to kids, because they warp kids’ sense of their own abilities and their own potential. This can lead to larger disappointments down the road when children enter adult worlds and get a more realistic sense of their own talents. More to the point, implying that feeling good about oneself is more important than the actual, tangible results of one’s efforts clouds a student’s ability to assess whether something they’re doing is working or not. If a student has a realistic sense of their abilities, they can take steps early on to address their insufficiencies and learn a) that they have to do something and b) what they have to do to get better.
“Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things,” explains Michael Chandler. Emphasizing self-esteem can be stagnating for children because if feeling good about oneself is the goal, then they have already reached it. Maintenance becomes the new goal. This means accepting fewer challenges and taking fewer risks because these challenges might jeopardize that good feeling. It’s not like kids don’t know that they can suck at things. Their anxieties about sucking tend, in fact, to be heightened because competence is so linked to self-conception. When children are incompetent at something, they tend to see that incompetence as a statement about them, not as an integral part of the process of intellectual growth.
Education systems have sought to decrease anxieties in students by reducing the risk of failure. But in the larger world, where a person’s efforts are valued by the results their actions produce, success or failure is the basic rubric by which value is determined. Increasing student safety nets (with things like no-fail policies) makes students really ill-prepared for the world. They also deprive students of the learning opportunities failure can bring. Duke University professor Henry Petroski, who studies engineering failures, says that failure is highly instructive because it “reveals weaknesses, helps make things stronger and offers lessons in humility.” Without the possibility of failure, there’s no objective framework against which students can evaluate their own weaknesses and grow from their mistakes.
Education is transformative. Ideally. If a student is already good enough and happy enough with themselves, there’s no drive to change, and the effects of education are lost. Education without self-esteem doesn’t have to mean that teachers actively work to destroy a student’s sense of self-regard, but it might free us up to focus on things that are more important than whether a student feels good about themselves. It might free us all up to focus on learning.
Now it’s your turn. What effect do you think the current self-esteem movement in education (and parenting) is having on kids’ development?