Develop children’s self-esteem the right way“, „Seven sentences that will increase your child’ self-esteem“; „How to boost children’s self-esteem“; „10 exercises for boosting children’s self-esteem“ „Mistakes that undermine your child’s self-esteem“; „Increase child’s self-esteem in 10 steps“…
As a parent, you don’t need to read anything, but these texts that you see on a daily basis in the media in order to conclude that self-esteem is a highly desirable characteristic for your child, with a miraculous effect on success and happiness of your successor.
Indeed, efforts to educate confident children seem quite logical and justified. We all want our children to be satisfied with themselves, believe in their abilities, appreciate their qualities, and be ready to try different activities.
It’s no wonder that the idea of self-esteem as a very positive thing seemed logical also to psychologists. Because of this so called movement for strengthening self-esteem has existed for half a century and the turning point of its emergence is the book “The Psychology of Self Esteem” of the Canadian psychologist Nathaniel Branden from 1969.
In his book father of this movement claimed that self-esteem had “fundamental effect on our thinking process, emotions, wishes, values and goals”, and it was “main key of man’s behaviour”. It was only necessary to raise people’s self-esteem and many of our problems would be solved.
As every miraculous recipe for all problems, his book on self-esteem also became bestseller and in the eighties self-esteem got into the mainstream and became an omnipresent topic, which until today resulted, according to some estimates, into 140,000 books written on the topic.
Self-esteem movement had a huge impact on education which was rooted into the idea that approving of child’s actions was a key to success. In 1986 the State of California even established “State work group for self-esteem”. In the name of self-esteem, teachers and parents started complimenting children to a great extent and saving them from any criticism or consequences of their actions. The trend was transferred into children’s TV program and every day on the screen children could see messages, such as “You are special” „You are great“, „You can be anything you want“, „You deserve it!“
After this book, Nathaniel Branden published a whole series of books on self-esteem, but in the last one from 1994, he tried to distance himself from the self-esteem movement that he called trivialized and sugar-coated pop psychology. “We don’t help children’s healthy development when we claim that self-esteem can be achieved by every day repetition of phrases “I am special” and “I love myself”. Branden said that it made more damage than good, as well as applauding and complimenting children for everything they did and rewarding them for participation. This is how false, “pseudo-self-esteem” is built, he says.

Dark Side of Self-Esteem

American social psychologist Roy Baumeister also belonged to the generation of psychologists who started their careers in the atmosphere of general celebration of self-esteem and wanted to contribute to the discovery of this characteristic through his research. However, what he found out shook his beliefs and caused a kind of a shock among his colleagues-scientists and creators of educational policies.
In 1996 as he was working on the review of books about „compromised egoism“ which leads to aggression, he noticed that high self-esteem is regularly shown as a characteristic of dangerous people – from bullies at the children’s playground to combatant dictators. What all of them have in common is their high opinion of themselves. After these findings, American Association of Psychologists invited Baumeister to lead the team that will perform a detailed review of all the books on self-esteem in order to determine what kind of influence it has on people’s happiness, health and success. The result is the study, published in 2003, which showed that work on boosting students’ self-esteem hadn’t proved to be useful for their results in school. The connection between self-esteem and good grades in school really existed, but what everybody was prone to interpret as a positive effect of self-esteem on grades was actually an illusion – success in school was what made children have more self-esteem, not the opposite. That is the reason why the programs for boosting students’ self-esteem didn’t produce expected results.
Self-esteem has neither brought many benefits in other life spheres. In the long run it didn’t make people more popular in the society, nor did it improve the quality and duration of their relationships. Higher self-esteem didn’t prevent children from smoking, taking drugs, nor from starting their sex life too soon.
“We expected too much from self-esteem, but it showed that people with higher self-esteem don’t have an easier life than the others“, said Baumeister. The thesis that was popular with the psychologists at the time – violence wasn’t the consequence of high, but of low self-esteem – sounded suspicious to him as he knew from his research that people with low self-esteem aren’t brave and avoid risks. The results of research confirmed that aggression was actually the characteristic of people who think that they were better than others and they would easily get mad if somebody started questioning their superiority. „This was a turning point for me and I became more sceptical regarding benefits of self-esteem in general“, says he. In his next research he started questioning self-esteem additionally and it showed that despite some advantages, self-esteem wasn’t really worth the attention and effort. For example, people with high self-esteem do think of themselves highly, which makes them happier, but their high opinion isn’t usually shared by the people from their surroundings. Also, people with high self-esteem show more initiative, but it goes both for good and bad things – they find it easier to approach people and make friends (because they think that everybody likes them), but they also start their sex life earlier than others, try drugs and alcohol earlier because their confidence makes them feel mature for any challenge.

Self-control, endangered species

However, debunking myths of self-esteem in the psychology didn’t transfer into practice, especially not in the education. Even though we have known for two decades that self-esteem isn’t really useful, this idea is too likeable and too much rooted in the popular culture, psychology and pedagogy for us to get rid of it so easily.
„Sometimes I joke that American schools have always been looking for ways to make children better students without working more. That is why they had the idea – “Well, we will just tell them they are good at maths and if they believe it, they will actually become better at maths. They won’t have to do maths homework”. I think this doesn’t work. Maths homework has to be done. The only trick is that spending an hour telling each other how fantastic both of you are and bragging is a lot more fun to everybody, even to the teacher, than an hour of solving maths problems. That is why I understand the popularity of self-esteem. But I don’t think it’s useful. ”
Today Baumeister thinks that self-control is a lot more valuable characteristic, to whose development we should devote the attention that was mistakenly devoted to self-esteem. „Good self-control is useful both for the individual and the society. If high self-esteem has any value, it is only individual. When somebody is full of themselves, they can feel good, but because of it people from their surrounding are the ones to suffer. If you ever worked with a person who has a big ego and thinks that they are the most important in the world, you know what I am talking about. It is difficult to get along with these people. On the other hand, self-control is good for everybody. That is why I advise schools, parents, trainers, teachers and everybody else: “forget about self-esteem and focus on self-control.”
„Unfortunately, “notices Baumeister, „in order not to damage their children’s self-esteem, parents stopped criticizing them and setting boundaries. That is why they didn’t help them develop such a necessary self-control. Instead of setting rules and insisting on their respect, they committed to sending harmful messages – “You are perfect. You are wonderful. Everything that you do is great.”
„Self-control is what can really make you a better person, instead of self-esteem that makes you think you’re a better person, “says Baumeister. “ That is what we used to call character – ability to pursue goals and ideals, resist temptation, respect obligations and be persistent in difficult tasks and plans. And those are real recipes for success in life, “concludes he.

Transliterated by Jelena