When I was a kid self-esteem began to be promoted in schools. A lot of adults seemed to have a problem with it, but almost nothing is more conformist to the next idea than education. It’s a part of teachers’ identity to always be doing the next thing. So it stuck.
At the time, I understood the criticism as being ‘a free trophy means nothing’. And the argument in favor was something like that generations’ cry against bullying or depression.
But as an adult and future parent, I recently began thinking more about this. Partly it’s because I heard a podcast discussing the origins of the craze, which are quite revealing.
I do think there is a lot wrong with the idea of self-esteem. The idea I had absorbed was that if there are no rewards for success, consequences for failure, and competition generally, then children growing up that way will not learn motivation (worst case scenario) or simply won’t enjoy sports and games as much (still bad for kids). That might just have been the criticism that stuck in my mind because I could understand it. Now I think the problem is worse, and I understand better that self-esteem and self-respect do not overlap.
The big problem with the self-esteem movement is that it dissociates a person’s sense of their value from their choices, competence, and social standing. We might not be the best player on the team or even make the team, and that doesn’t have to lower our worth. But our worth does have to come from something that we do or that we are working to become. Children must be taught this – that life is action and growth, that they need to be putting their effect into something worthwhile, that they can be worth something if they develop into a competent, mature adult.
The problem with self-esteem was (and is, where self-esteem is still in vogue) that kids were being taught to have self-esteem even if they didn’t participate in anything, or have a pleasant personality and good morals, or try particularly hard in class, or even if they were troublemakers or got involved in drugs and alcohol at a young age.
Not convinced this is a bad thing? Forget the kids for second and think of adults. There’s a word for someone who has a high sense of self-worth that is divorced from their actions and contributions to the group. It’s narcissist. Teaching kids to believe in their own worth as inherently high regardless of what they do or what kind of person they become can lead down the same path. When would you learn this if not as a child?
This is because you can’t separate a person from other people. Part of who we are is our own tendencies and preferences like shyness, a love of basketball, a certain kind of music, although even these private things are influenced by other people. But as human beings most of who we are is determined by our relationships and how we fulfill them. Child, student, friend, citizen, employee, employer, husband, wife, parent. You can’t fail at all of these things and still be a worthy person for the simple reason that it means you are also failing at being yourself.
Which means that to ignore all of these things in school and promote self-esteem is either to push towards a dissociated narcissism, or at least to allow the student to take all of their self-worth from standards outside the mainstream of the school. That would be whatever subculture the student ends up in. While there is nothing wrong with being part of a subculture, it is a problem when someone only cares about that part of their identity and ignores the standards of the mainstream – it can and will lead to isolation and resentment.
I think we should refocus on the traditional values of dignity and respect. What do I mean by this?
Dignity is the way that you behave and treat people that is determined by etiquette. You speak politely to people, behave with honesty and integrity, and expect the same from others. You can think of this as following the necessary minimums to treat each other well. This is not dependent on what you have done or what the other person has done.
Respect is recognizing that something more than basic polite treatment has to be based on a person’s demonstrated skills and character. You should only respect yourself if you know you are holding to a code of good behavior including hard work, honesty, kindness, strength. Respect for others – beyond treating them with basic dignity – is based on what they do as well. You should treat a lazy jerk politely, but you shouldn’t respect him. You should respect people who themselves follow a code and show good character, or hard work and competence, or ideally both. Looking at life this way encourages these good qualities in yourself and others.
The world doesn’t owe us anything for being born. We have to earn our place.