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.

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Simple smarts

I once went on a date with a girl with whom I had the following exchange:

Me: I just started reading this new book.

Girl: What is it?

Me: The Perfect Storm. It’s great.

Girl: Great? Excuse me? Pffft. To me, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is a great book. The Perfect Storm? Great? Please.

Needless to say, that was our only date. (You know how you often think of an awesome comeback to statements like that a little too late? If I were faced with that today, I’d gleefully retort, “What are you talking about? Nuts gave it an ‘A’!”) Her comment didn’t catch me by surprise, however; it was already clear from our first meeting that this girl had decided I was not a smart person. Not stupid, mind you, not unable to string together words in sentences without drooling on myself, but just not intelligent, not the way she, with her red-brick education and nice middle class upbringing, believed she was. How we actually ended up going out on a date still befuddles me.

But she was right, of course. Intelligence is one of the more nebulous, shifting concepts we have, and from my experience, if people consider you smart in a conventional fashion, you probably can’t change a tire. We all had that one person in our class who was a straight-A student, was involved in all the extracurricular activities, was accepted to a fancy private school, and typically wore her bra backwards.

At school in the Caribbean, I’m sad to say, I was that person (except for the bra thing, of course). Ninety-ninth percentile, on just about all the tests. I aced them all. When it came time for the 11-plus exam that everyone dreaded, I smashed that too, gaining entry to the country’s top secondary school. But after I received the result from my giddy school principal, she informed me my fly was open. And the day after winning a national essay competition and collecting a trophy for my efforts, I tried to change a lightbulb using a screwdriver.

How does one define intelligence? I’m excellent at trivia and bits of seemingly useless information. If you wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me which movies won the Oscar for Best Picture in the last decade or who holds the record for most wickets in a cricket season, I can tell you. (The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country For Old Men, The Departed, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King, Chicago, A Beautiful Mind and Gladiator; Tich Freeman, with 304 in 1928. Thank you, thank you.) Ask me why I threw the house keys in the bin yesterday and put the crumpled scrap of paper in my pocket instead, I have no answer… Get my drift?

They say that Einstein couldn’t tie his shoes, and, truth be told, I’m kind of grasping onto that idea. Because there are so many things in this world that I cannot do. To some people, not being able to do them makes me a moron. To others, it’s a sign of my intelligence.

It all depends on whom you hang around and what you value. When I’m back visitng the Caribbean, I sometimes try to tell myself that I’m smarter, that I had the otherworldly insight to leave, which the sorry minions I grew up with lacked. It’s incredibly stupid and condescending, of course, but I actually had the temerity to imply this to a friend there once. She looked at me. “David, you pay thousands a month in rent and you live thousands of miles from your family and best friends. I have a mortgage that’s half that, I can see my friends and family anytime I want, and I have a proper detached house near the beach with loads of outdoor space. Tell me again how smart you are.”

To change the subject, I sprung up a cerebral monologue about snot.

There is this girl I like. I think she’s really intelligent. There is no doubt in my mind.

I was describing her to another friend recently: “She’s smart. She’s creative. She’s ambitious and she has drive. I think she gets what’s important in life. She helps people and she also knows how to take care of herself. Doesn’t take shit from anyone. She seems to have the right idea about getting the most out of life, and she wants to do it on her own terms. When I look at everyone else I know, she’s just about one of the smartest people I’ve met for a long time.”

My friend was unimpressed. “So you’re saying that she’s really nice. That’s not smart. That’s nice.”

But I’m serious. To me, that’s what intelligence is. An understanding of your place in the world, the wisdom that comes with being comfortable with who you are, an inherent sense of empathy for every speck of humanity that crosses your path. That’s smart. Being able to realise what really matters.

In other words, I’m an idiot.