June 19, 2024
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How Do We Build Self-Esteem?

On a warm spring day in 2012, an English teacher in Wellesley, Massachusetts, rose to deliver a commencement address to the 338 soon-to-be graduates of Wellesley High School. Since then, a recording of the address went viral online; the speech was published in Time magazine; and its author, David McCullough Jr., has gone on to write a book based on the address entitled, “You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements.”

McCullough’s message to the graduates was clear: “Whether male and female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic Xbox assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same … All this is as it should be, because none of you is special … [E]ven if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.”

McCullough and others are pushing back on the “self-esteem movement” that swept the nation in the 1980s and 1990s, fueled by a belief that raising the self-esteem of children would cure many of society’s ills. Nathaniel Branden, author of “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” declared in the mid-1980s that he could not “think of a single psychological problem … that is not traceable to the problem of low self-esteem.” No wonder policymakers, teachers and parents jumped on the self-esteem bandwagon.

Unfortunately, nearly 30 years later, research on self-esteem seems to indicate that it neither leads to higher academic performance nor better relationships (although it does seem to have some benefits—more on that later), but what truly concerns many of these critics are the methods to raise self-esteem, such as excessive praise, that are associated with undesirable outcomes. A 2014 longitudinal study of 565 children and their parents revealed that “overvaluing children” leads not to self-esteem but to narcissism, with the overvalued children more likely to believe that they are entitled to special privileges and are superior to others. “[I]n their attempts to raise self-esteem,” say the researchers, “parents often intuitively rely on lavishing children with praise, telling them that they are special and unique, and giving them exceptional treatment. Our results show that, rather than raising self-esteem, such ‘overvaluing’ practices might inadvertently raise narcissism in children.”

So how do we build self-esteem in our children and our students without accidentally raising entitled narcissists? I would like to offer two suggestions:

First, praise children for good habits of mind. As part of her research on fixed and growth mindset, psychologist and author Carol Dweck discovered that praising a child for qualities that were not earned, including inborn traits (for example, saying “You’re smart,” or the more damaging “You’re the smartest!”), creates a situation where the child is likely to shrink back from challenges and want to stick with what comes easily. “If parents want to give their children a gift,” writes Dweck, “the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, … [t]hey will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”

So how does Dweck say we can accomplish this? By praising our children for the processes that lead to growth, the habits of mind that support challenge-seeking and continued learning. So, for example, instead of saying, “You did a great job at that. You’re smart!” (praising achievement and innate ability), consider saying, “I love how dedicated you were to figuring out those problems!” (praising process).

Second, praise children for habits of heart. Research supports the idea that, while much of our personalities are genetic, our values come from our environments. So if you want your children to value selfishness, be sure to demonstrate the trait and tell them that they are the best (and hence worthy of the very best). But if, instead, you want them to exemplify the values of kindness, respect and concern for others, be sure to model that behavior—and encourage your children by acknowledging their pro-social behavior.

Again, be sure that the praise is not just about accomplishment, but also about the values behind those accomplishments—“I love how you care about your classmates,” for example. And yes, studies show that doing for others does promote good self-esteem, but it accomplishes an even more important goal of contributing to making the world a better place.


Rabbi Shimmy Trencher is principal of the Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy Upper School in Stamford. He is also a licensed clinical social worker and can be reached at [email protected]. For references and links to articles, visit http://www.bchaupperschool.org/esteem.

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