Tuesday, November 30, 2010

High Self-Esteem or Good Character

If I have to choose between encouraging people to have high self esteem and helping them to build good character, I will always come down on the side of good character.

If the choice is between self-esteem and self-control, as Dennis Prager suggests, it is better for a child to learn self-control and discipline than for him to learn to feel good about himself regardless of his successes and failures. Link here.

Good character will make you happier than will high self-esteem. Good character will make you a better person, and a better person will have more friends and will succeed more often.

When self-esteem has no real basis, it becomes nothing more than a mental tic. Regardless of whether I succeed or fail I have been taught to tell myself, over and over again, that I am the greatest.

No one is going to like you if your self-esteem is arrogance and if it has nothing to do with the reality that everyone, but you, sees.

When your high self-esteem allows you to feel good about yourself no matter what, you will become a self-involved narcissist who will have no real use for other people.

Through the agency of the educational establishment the therapy culture has told us that people with high self-esteem are confident, happy, well-adjusted, optimistic, and wholesome.

And yet, as Prager reports, recent research has shown that children who have high self-esteem often grow up to be criminals.

It does make some sense. If you have always been told that you can do as you please and take what you want, then why would you not make a career out of crime.

If you have learned that other people have no right to judge you, for good or for ill, then you might believe that your actions have no moral component at all. They are neither good nor bad, but they are yours. You need only judge them by how they make you feel.

Anyone who thinks that the therapy culture is in the business of producing mental health should think again.

But then, Prager adds, in what seems to be a logical deduction, children who have grown up with low self-esteem, who have been judged too harshly by their parents, who have systematically been abused and brutalized and criticized, often grow up to have good character.

I would certainly have my doubts about this conclusion. Wherever would this child learn good character if he has spent his childhood learning how to survive abuse? Where would he learn to trust people, to have confidence in their character, if he has suffered the effects of people who have no character?

We need, at the least, to be careful with our logical deductions. The fact that it appears to be logical does not necessarily make it true.

I would agree that criminals might well have high self-esteem. But only in the sense that their self-worth is detached from their sense of being part of a community.

When you make a living out of exploiting people and cheating them out of whatever they have earned, then you do have high self-esteem in the sense that success has given you confidence.But you do not have high self-esteem in the sense that you respect yourself or other people.

A child who is fed a steady diet of self-esteemist thinking is also likely to become a narcissist, a slacker, or a self-absorbed fool. Perhaps he will come to believe that the world owes him a living, but that is not quite the same thing as being John Dillinger.

One of the major problems with the self-esteem movement is that the term is defined with breathtaking imprecision.

I suspect that self-esteem became ubiquitous because it was confused with other more useful concepts, like self-respect, self-confidence, optimism, and even, good character. I believe that the term has purposefully been attached to other terms, like self-respect and character, in order to insinuate itself into our thinking. 

Thus, there’s self-esteem and there’s self-esteem. A child who is good at math and gets high scores on his math tests will develop a confidence in his ability to do math. He will esteem himself for his real accomplishments.

Whenever he receives a new set of problems, he relishes the opportunity and attacks the task with gusto. When he cannot figure out a problem, he will assume that with a little extra time or effort he will be able to. His confidence will motivate him through easy and difficult assignments.

Whether we call it his self-esteem, his confidence, or his self-respect, it has been earned. They are his, inalienably.

What happens, then, if the school system decides to pervert the concept of self-esteem by deciding that all answers on math tests are of equal validity; they all express the student’s feelings at that particular time? Or, what would happen if a teacher decided to give everyone the same grade?

How long would the excellent math student keep working to do his best? How long would he continue to feel confident in his ability to do math?

Of course, educators who reward children for doing poorly, whether on math tests or on the soccer field, are insulting them. They are assuming that the children do not know that they are receiving an award that they did not earn.

Unearned rewards, like unearned confidence, assume that the child does not know the difference and does not understand that those who excel deserve more than those who do not.

This form of artificially high self-esteem-- the basis for the self-esteem movement-- is actually demeaning. One might even say that it would lower one's self-esteem. Is there any real surprise that it would tend to produce adults that are criminals or narcissists or both?

The consequences of self-esteemist thinking are clear. Prager writes: “Perhaps the most famous example is the survey of American high-school students and those of seven other countries. Americans came in last in mathematical ability but first in self-esteem about their mathematical ability.”

Strangely, a movement that attempted to turn the classroom into a therapist’s office, the better to improve student performance, has also been touted as a way to make children into more responsible citizens.

Of course, it makes no sense. No one is going to become more responsible by not being held accountable, by not allowing themselves to be judged for their faults, flaws, and strengths.

But does it then follow, as Prager thinks it does, that if children with high self-esteem grow up to become criminals, that children with low self-esteem would naturally grow into solid citizens with exemplary character?

Do we really believe that children who are constantly berated, criticized, and demeaned are going to grow up to have good character?

Where would such a child learn the lessons of good character? Where would he learn discipline when he is subjected to parental intemperance? Where would he learn trust when he has been brought up by someone he cannot trust?

If you are successful in building your character you would naturally take pride in your ethical achievements? Some might say that this involves self-esteem. Others would choose a different word.

While you might build your character as a reaction to parental abuse, the chances are better that you will build it by emulating parents who have good character themselves.


Retriever said...

I think that in general the children who develop good characters despite parental abuse were fortunate enough to find kind teachers or mentors or other role models they looked up to, and were given guidance and advice by. Not fluff like "OMG, you're GREAT!" but being taught how to do things, patiently, being encouraged to persist at things they found difficult (as opposed to being beaten for initial failures). I don't think teachers should be social workers, but many, many children have been inspired and encouraged by kind words and exhortations from a teacher who sees their potential and gives them extra work, a more advanced book, a new notebook.

One of the reasons our culture indulges in such absurdities about self esteem is that we daren't speak the truth which is that it is bad for children to be raised without fathers. Boys or girls. A loving, involved and sometimes strict father does more for a kid's character and self-respect than all the self-esteem building exercises a school can ever do.

But in real life, plenty of kids have appalling or no fathers. Or appalling mothers. And we don't do kids any favors by romanticizing adversity as a builder of character. That's like saying starvation builds strong bones in growing kids.

I'm no defender of the nanny state, I just make a pain of myself talking about parental responsibility...:) And with my own kids almost grown, I am looking forward to some day being a grandmother and getting to just spoil the little darlings and tell them they are wonderful and not having to worry about improving their characters any more...heheh

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, Retriever, for adding this point. I agree with you that we cannot connect good character with low self-esteem unless we know about the influence of the other parent, other family members, teachers, mentors, and other important figures in a child's life.

It is amazing that the research only emphasizes one aspect of a child's experience and fails to see the child as a social being within a larger social context.