The cult of self-esteem

Some of my teacher friends may disagree with me, but I’m a tad worried about some of the lessons being taught to young children these days.

That’s because in practising today’s cult of building “self-esteem,” almost everything that a child does is absolutely, fantastically, incredibly, unbelievably just soooo fucking wonderful. As in the mother at Gatwick airport a few weeks ago: “Oh, you’re doing that soooo well, Thomas. Fantastic!” (To a boy playing with a little car and making an awful sound that I think was supposed to be a police siren.) Or, to her young daughter throwing a ball up in the air and catching it: “Honey, you did that so well. I’m soooo proud of you!”

Shit, I thought. Wouldn’t a simple, “Good work, keep it up” be enough? I mean, what are these poor children going to do for an encore?

Really, I never knew the word “so” could have so many syllables or that when it comes to virtually every one of a child’s activities there are only varying degrees of “wonderful”. But it’s not the first time I’ve witnessed this. In run into it in shopping centres and supermarkets — all those places where young children often gather with their parents. It’s even happing in our schools too.

But there is something even worse than such excruciatingly effusive praise for every benign activity. There is, for example, the mother in a restaurant last week talking to a child who had finally stopped screaming demands and was now sitting still for a few minutes: “You’re doing very well now. Mummy is soooo proud of you.” Or, back at Gatwick, “Thomas, that was soooo nice to let Sarah play with your ball without getting upset. You’re just great!”

I am not a child psychology expert. Shit, I’m not even a parent. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that such worshipping at the shrine of self-esteem only builds a certain amount of self-centredness and a false sense of self — a real Tower of Babel — that can’t help but one day come crashing down around the child.

Case in point: a recent Reuters report noted that while today’s District of Columbia high school students rank at the bottom among students in the United States in mathematics skills, they are tops among the world’s students in how they feel about their mathematics skills. Well now, how the fuck is such a child going to feel when they can’t get a job after leaving school? I mean, it’s hard enough already even when you have a Masters degree!

It’s no surprise that some of today’s most popular child-rearing books instruct parents to criticise wrong behaviour but never the child who committed it. In other words, say to your child, “It’s not nice to say that to your sister.” But surely, separating actions from the child committing them teaches little ones that they are not responsible for their behaviour. And isn’t this the very thing, so widespread today, which cause great personal misery and societal dysfunction? Besides, how can a child not responsible for their actions then have an appropriate sense of satisfaction when behaving well? After all — when one extends the principle — if they shouldn’t be criticised when they behave badly, then neither should there be praise for a good performance! No wonder the children raised according to this cult of self-esteem seem so often to be the most tyrannical and unhappy of creatures.

Of course children can behave badly, or be unkind or selfish or rude, and it doesn’t help anyone, least of all the child, to pretend otherwise. Rather than teaching them to separate themselves from wrong behaviour, isn’t it better for a child to learn how to guard against such self-destructive tendencies? Only then can they move toward that which they can honestly feel good about.

Of course, praise for children is very important and should be given whenever appropriate. Children have great inherent worth because they are the future. And a sense of honest self-esteem and of being loved unconditionally is crucially important to a child. But we do them no favours when we portray for them an unrealistic picture that is often either too easy or too hard to live up to.

1 thought on “The cult of self-esteem

  1. The most important lesson to teach a child may just be sincerity. But then you have to demonstrate it first. If only you demonstrate is insincerity there will be a very different outcome.

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