Is America Building Kids’ Self-Esteem Or Creating Narcissism?

I’ve been reading Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. It’s an outstanding book that I would highly recommend.

Although the book is non-political, there was one particular section that really grabbed my attention. It was called “From Self-esteem to Narcissism.” Here’s an excerpt. Enjoy!

Yes, students with higher self-esteem did have higher grades. But which came first? Did students’ self-esteem lead to good grades, or did good grades lead to self-esteem? It turned out that grades in tenth grade predicted self-esteem in twelfth grade, but self-esteem in tenth grade failed to predict grades in twelfth grade. Thus, it seemed, the grades came first, and the self-esteem came afterward.

…Other evidence showed that, across the country, students’ self-esteem went up while their performance declined. They just felt better about doing worse. In his own research, Baumeister puzzled over the observation that some people doing truly awful things — like professional hit men and serial rapists — had remarkably high levels of self-esteem.

After reviewing the scientific literature, the panel of psychologists concluded that there is no modern epidemic of low self-esteem, at least not in the United States, Canada, or western Europe.

…The consensus of the scientific literature happens to jibe with anecdotal evidence from the Baumeister household, where there have been conversations like this:

Daughter (4 years old): I know everything.
Mother: No, honey you don’t everything.
Daughter: Yes, I do. I know everything.
Mother: You don’t know the square root of thirty-six.
Daughter (without batting an eye): I’m keeping all the really big numbers a secret.
Mother: It’s not a really big number. It’s only six.
Daughter: I knew that.

And this was a child whose parents had not attempted to boost her self-esteem.

The review panel also concluded that high self-esteem generally does not make people more effective or easier to get along with. People with high self-esteem think they’re more popular, charming, and socially skilled than other people, but objective studies find no difference. Their self-esteem generally does not lead to better performance at school or at work, or early sexual behavior. While there may be a correlation between low self-esteem and problems like drug addiction and teenage pregnancy, that doesn’t mean low self-esteem causes these problems. It works the other way: Being a sixteen-year-old pregnant heroin addict can make you feel less than wonderful about yourself.

…By most measures in psychological studies, narcissism has increased sharply in recent decades, especially among young Americans. College professors often complain that students now feel entitled to high grades without having to study; employers report problems with young workers who expect a quick rise to the top without paying their dues.

…This broad rise in narcissism is the problem child of the self-esteem movement, and it is not likely to change anytime soon, because the movement persists despite the evidence that it’s not making children become more successful honest, or otherwise better citizens. Too many students, parents, and educators are still seduced by the easy promises of self-esteem.

…The self-esteem movement, fortunately, never took hold in the video game industry, probably because children would have been too bored by games that began by telling them what great players they were. Instead, children have preferred games in which they start out as lowly “noobs” (as in newbies) who must earn respect through their accomplishments. To acquire skills, they fail over and over. The typical teenager must have endured thousands of digital deaths and virtual fiascoes, yet somehow he retains enough self-esteem to keep trying. While parents and educators have been promoting the everybody-gets-a-trophy philosophy, children have been seeking games with more demanding standards. Players need concentration to fight off Ork after Ork; they need patience to mine for virtual gold; they need thriftiness to save up for a new sword or helmet.

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