Once upon a time – a time you probably don’t remember if you’re younger than 30 – American schools sought to teach children self-control, personal responsibility, and respect for others, especially adults. Students were corrected when they made mistakes and reprimanded when they slacked off or talked back. Most unfathomable to the current education establishment, teachers assessed students on qualities such as “gets along well with others” – and some children actually flunked. In the eyes of schoolteachers and parents, shaping kids into productive and responsible citizens was more important than protecting their egos.
Then, sometime in the 1970s, schools began to embrace the peculiar notion that kids should never be criticized or feel self-doubt. The “self-esteem” movement was born – and ushered in a generation of kids who think they can do no wrong.
In her new book, “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – And More Miserable than Ever Before,” Dr. Jean Twenge documents the spectacular failure of the self-esteem movement, from its birth in the 1970s to the present. Despite enthusiastic predictions to the contrary, raising kids’ self-esteem does not make them more successful or productive. It does, however, train them to always feel good about themselves, even when they do bad things.
Twenge makes clear the difference between self-esteem and self-respect. Self-respect – a value taught to older generations – is achieved gradually, by behaving morally and accomplishing things. Self-esteem is an entitlement. As Twenge explains, “most [self-esteem] programs encourage children to feel good about themselves for no particular reason.”
Is that really such a bad thing? According to Twenge, who spent years researching the subject, the answer is yes. Numerous studies show basically no relationship between high self-esteem and academic achievement, strong work ethic, or harmonious relationships with others.
In fact, Twenge’s research suggests that the self-esteem movement has wreaked havoc on schools. Instead of teaching children to learn from their mistakes, “There has been a movement against ‘criticizing’ children too much…One popular method tells teachers not to correct students’ spelling or grammar, arguing that kids should be ‘independent spellers’ so they can be treated as ‘individuals.’”
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