If you brought your car to a mechanic, you’d expect her to understand the workings of your car very well. If you went to a doctor for important surgery, you’d be sure to find one who excelled in their knowledge of the specific area, as well as one who had sufficient actual practice. In the same sense, it is important for parents to understand what self-esteem is and how it works. To that end, “self-esteem 101” is presented in a few, short pages.
The nitty gritty of self-esteem is covered in the “Quick self-esteem 101 knowledge” section. While in many ways it is important to understand that section first, it is a little more abstract and technical, so it is presented later. A full understanding of self-esteem can’t be obtained without that knowledge though. Thanks for your time and interest!
Self-esteem: The real scoop
There are a lot of people with high self-esteem. Mass murders, prisoners, gang members, and delinquent children all have higher self-esteem, on average, than people in the general population of a similar age. While having a high self-esteem isn’t everything, having a low or even middling self-esteem definitely isn’t good. So, high self-esteem isn’t the exclusive club of success that many people give it credit for, but low to moderate self-esteem is certainly unhealthy.
Self-esteem programs that don’t work
To use schools as the example, there have been and are programs that attempt to increase self-esteem. Such programs have many, but not all, of these elements. These are just examples as there are many other elements to such programs.
- All people are treated equally
- No one is allowed to fail
- Competition is rarely done
- Feel good about yourself above all else
- Children don’t have honor roles
- Everyone gets a trophy or award or certificate
- No scores kept on games for children under a certain age
- Make children feel special “Look at your hands. No one else has your hands. They are special and so are you”
- Children sing songs
- “Who I am makes a difference”
- “We are all heroes”
- Write warm fuzzies (notes of praise)
Such activities have been going on for over 20 years. People have various opinions on the merits of such activities, but several studies have concluded that not only do such approaches not work, but they may be doing more harm than good. California spent 3 years and $750,000 to study self-esteem courses and programs. The result of this massive evaluation was that the programs made no difference in children’s self-esteem or any other variable of interest.
It doesn’t work. With a thorough understanding of self-concept (covered in the second major section), the fact that such things don’t work makes perfect sense.
One last example is that in 1972, 25% of teens heading to college had an A or B average. In 1998, 75% had an A or B average. But, SAT scores are lower. If grades are a measure of self-worth, then a lot of children have better reason to like themselves, but performance hasn’t gone up as a result. In fact, it has gone down.
The problem with praise
If people praise lavishly for doing easy things, why should it make them want to do hard things? Several studies confirm this thought. One example is a study that gave 5th graders an easy puzzle to solve, and then the researchers told them how smart they were. Another group was only told that they tried hard. Then, everyone was given a hard puzzle. Finally, all the kids were asked to take more tests. Kids who were praised for trying were eager to try more. Those who were just praised were reluctant to do any more tests. They could not handle setbacks. They didn’t want to risk not being brilliant anymore. Thus, don’t just tell Johnny he is brilliant, because it gets him caught up in being brilliant rather than learning.
When high-school children were asked about their performance compared to other countries in the world, they rated their ability on math and science as above average, even though they are almost last in industrialized countries. Korean children thought they weren’t that good, but they were number one!
Self-esteem needs to be based in something real. Everyone has gifts and people find value in themselves based on their gifts. People aren’t good at everything. Basing self-esteem on generalities, or fluff, doesn’t do children any favors.
Praise is fine, but acknowledge the effort, not a child’s traits. It is better to say “you worked really hard” (if they did), rather than “you are so smart.” Children need, mostly, honest feedback. They need to learn that excellence comes from effort. Acknowledging high achievers is fine, but it must be based on real success.
Artificially high self-esteem is dangerous. These people, when criticized, often become angry and aggressive. Conceited people get nasty when you burst their bubble of self-love. Having a high self-esteem is unlikely to reduce violence.
Notes from decades of self-esteem research
Roy Baumeister, Ph. D. has conducted numerous examinations of self-esteem as well as carefully reviewed the self-esteem (concept) literature. Among all in the field, he was chosen to write a prestigious review. A few relevant words on the topic at hand from a speech he gave about self-esteem are repeated below.
“All too often, this movement takes the form of uncritical self-celebration as an entitlement of being a human being, instead of applauding hard-earned achievements. Awarding trophies to all contestants or “socially promoting” students who haven’t learned the material is not conducive to well-founded self-esteem. In fact, these practices may cultivate inflated views of self and entitlements, which constitute the dangerous form of high self-esteem. I see nothing wrong with praising a child (or adult) for an outstanding or brilliant performance. I see plenty wrong with praising everyone even when the actual achievements are mediocre.”
“Can anyone benefit from self-esteem boosting, in school or therapy? Sure. Some people genuinely fail to recognize their abilities and achievements and might shortchange themselves. But these are a small minority. Many research findings show that most Americans already hold inflated opinions of themselves.”
“My profound disappointment with the benefits of self-esteem has been partly offset by discovering something else that does seem to work. Self-control, as in being able to regulate one’s emotions, impulses, performance patterns and thoughts, has plenty of positive payoff, for the individual and society. [part of emotional intelligence] Self-control problems are central to most problems in our society: teen pregnancy, drug abuse, violence, school failure, unsafe sex, alcohol abuse, money problems and debt, eating disorders, ill health, and more. My conclusion therefore echoes Seligman’s call to discontinue school’s self-esteem programs. Instead of dismantling them altogether though, I suggest we focus them on instilling the capacity to control, discipline and regulate oneself. Ironically, in the long run, that approach will even more probably do better for self-esteem. Self-control permits the individual to discipline the self to achieve goals and fulfill social and personal obligations. That creates a stronger basis for self-esteem than indiscriminate flattery.”
Why would I proceed to tell you how to increase self-esteem? Because although a high self-esteem isn’t necessarily a good thing, a low to moderate sense of self is not a good thing. A healthy, moderately high sense of self that isn’t based on fluff is well worth having.
Knowing what does work is as important as knowing what does not. Simply feeling good about yourself and being told you are good tends not to affect baseline (stable) self-esteem, but rather barometric (fluctuating) self-esteem. If baseline self-esteem is affected, it is usually a fragile and unhealthy sense of self-worth.
Again, don’t just tell Johnny he is brilliant, because it gets him caught up in being brilliant rather than learning. Self-esteem needs to be based in something real. Everyone has gifts and people find value in themselves based on their gifts. People aren’t good at everything. Basing self-esteem on generalities, or fluff, doesn’t do children any favors. Pointing out true success based on effort is fine, as long as the feedback is accurate and not overstated.
Acknowledge the effort, not a child’s traits. Better to say “you worked really hard” (if they did), rather than “you are so smart.” Children need, mostly, honest feedback. They need to learn that excellence comes from effort. A dip in barometric self-esteem (okay, I’m not the greatest) is a small price to pay for a more healthy sense of self-esteem.
Opportunity for real competence
Having children do a lot of different activities for exposure is not going to help as much as programs where children have a real chance to gain a sufficient degree of expertise. It is important that children have a chance for competence, as opposed to just exposure. Competence in a valued area adds to self-complexity (see later section for an explanation). The caveat is that the elements gained at camp work better if they are applicable and valuable in the child’s normal environment. Creating or boosting areas that will be central in the child’s normal environment is especially valuable.
Competence is often more easily accomplished in choice programs, because children pick niches where they are likely to eventually be successful. They’ll make mistakes, but children will probably find an area or two where they excel. Camp Lakewood offers a choice program.
Other benefits of a choice program include practice with decision-making and planning skills. Choice also creates a more fun and task-oriented group in the activity, and thus yields an often better opportunity for a real sense of accomplishment. If children are given the opportunity to make choices about their daily activities and then act upon those choices, they should have an increased sense of control, which is a foundation element for self-esteem.
Concrete, specific requirements and objective criteria for evaluation are helpful as they foster the sense of real achievement. So, for example, there would be set levels in archery, canoeing, and arts and crafts with explicit criteria set forth to achieve a given level. As children gain enough levels in enough activities, they can be publicly commended for their real achievement. Participation in these programs is often voluntary.
Social support is important to people’s self-esteem. Having a group of people who support and value the person can increase self-esteem in those who don’t already have this in their lives. As folk wisdom says, everyone needs at least one person who is absolutely crazy about them and accepts them. This values the real self, and offers external belief in a positive future sense of self.
Positive behavior management
Punishment, guilt, and the logical consequences of one's actions all take control away from a person's control. See our “Partnering with Parents” resources on the 5 approaches to discipline and success counseling for more information.
Having an internal, stable, controllable means for controlling oneself and one’s environment is a healthy cornerstone of self-esteem. A healthy system of behavior management also increases children's emotional intelligence.
De-emphasize physical attractiveness
This piece needs the following section to be well understood. Camps can utilize the idea of the actual and ideal sense of self to try and reduce the discrepancy. Increasing the actual self is what camps often do with their programs. Reducing the ideal is rarely done, but is often just as effective. It’s the tool that most camps don’t use effectively enough.
Physical attractiveness, friends, and popularity are some of the most potent forces influencing children's self-esteem. For girls, the culture and media worship thinness and beauty. Eighty percent of ten-year-old girls diet. The one wish for the majority of girls ages eleven to seventeen is to be thinner. Twenty years ago, fashion models weighed 8 percent less than the average female; today, models weigh 23 percent less. Clearly, the ideal figure that girls are bombarded with is likely far from their reality. Remember, the greater the discrepancy between the real and ideal self, the lower that aspect of self-esteem will be.
The Media Education Foundation produced a video called Slim Hopes that attacks the ideal. Reducing the ideal is as effective in raising self-esteem as raising the "real" self. http://www.mediaed.org/
Quick self-esteem 101 knowledge
People get confused about the idea of self-concept and self-esteem. It’s important to understand the difference and what makes up the self-concept, so that how to increase self-esteem can be better understood. This is an extremely concise explanation. For more, please see a current developmental and social psychology textbook. The reader will likely have to read this very small section twice as each part is so dependent on the whole.
Like any attitude, self-esteem includes cognitive, affective, and behavioral components – described shortly. Self-esteem is a person’s positive or negative feelings of personal value or self-worth. In practice, the three components of self-concept cannot be cleanly separated when examining self-esteem, because they make up an interdependent whole. For example, one’s cognitive biases and categories may color how one views a particular behavioral act, which then, in turn, may influence one’s evaluation of oneself - self-esteem. Self-esteem is the referent, but it is influenced by cognitive and behavioral factors. This point will become clear as the three components are understood.
The way one thinks impacts one’s self-esteem. There are three important concepts here – self-complexity, centrality, and domains.
Self-complexity refers to how many items make up one’s self-esteem. The more attributes and activities one ascribes to the self, the more resistant to degradation the self is. For example, if one’s self-esteem is made up of 7 main elements, and any one of those takes a solid hit, self-esteem will be significantly impacted. However, if one has 30 elements to the self, then a hit on any one of them is going to have a wider buffer. At camp, children can gain more elements to their self, which should help act as a buffer. The caveat with that is that the elements gained at camp work better if they are applicable and valuable in the child’s normal environment. So, archery likely doesn’t qualify as a new self-complexity domain, but it may contribute to a general sense of self-efficacy (confidence).
Centrality refers to the fact that we weight different areas of ourselves differently. For example, one might weigh being a camp director, parent, and golfer as higher, while cooking, physical appearance, and ability at school or academics might be rated lower. Improving an area that carries little or less weight is not as effective as targeting a domain that carries more weight.
At the same time, working on domains that are low is also effective, especially if they also carry significant weight in the self-system. For children, there are eight domains that are pretty universally important. They are: school, athletic, social acceptance, physical appearance, behavioral conduct, intelligence, anxiety, and happiness and satisfaction.
In essence, people observe their own behavior and then try and figure out (or attribute) why it occurred. Did I do well because of me, or was it luck? The answer to that question determines if the child will benefit or not from the same rather objective event. This whole idea is the study of attribution. The graphic might help explain the concept.