Charlie Brown Versus Turbo: Are “Self Esteem Movies” Damaging to Kids?

Over at The Atlantic, Luke Epplin has a dash of tonic for the soul of every parent weary of the cult of self-esteem. Examining recent kids movies, like Turbo and Planes, Epplin takes the “if you can dream it, you can do it” mentality and does more than merely mock it (though mocking can be fun), he demonstrates how they actually denigrate the everyday hard work and true virtue that builds healthy cultures:

Following one’s dreams necessarily entails the pursuit of the extraordinary in these films. The protagonists sneer at the mundane, repetitive work performed by their unimaginative peers. Dusty abhors the smell of fertilizer and whines to his flying coach that he’s “been flying day after day over these same fields for years.” Similarly, Turbo performs his duties in the garden poorly, and his insubordination eventually gets him and Chet fired. Their attitudes are all part of an ethos that privileges self-fulfillment over the communal good.

In addition to disparaging routine labor, these films discount the hard work that enables individuals to reach the top of their professions. Turbo and Dusty don’t need to hone their craft for years in minor-league circuits like their racing peers presumably did. It’s enough for them simply to show up with no experience at the world’s most competitive races, dig deep within themselves, and out-believe their opponents. They are, in many ways, the perfect role models for a generation weaned on instant gratification.

I’m fully ware that I’m quite susceptible to ”kids these days/get off my lawn” grouchiness, but there’s actual data to support a rise in narcissism in the younger generations. But it’s not enough to curse the darkness, Epplin lights a small candle — recalling how even much-beloved cartoon characters can tell a different story. Take Charlie Brown, for example:

A Boy Named Charlie Brown might come across now as harsh and unforgiving — especially to audiences that aren’t familiar with the comic strip’s cruel undercurrents — but its lessons are more enduring than those from movies where characters fulfill their impossible dreams. Charlie Brown learns through Linus’s tough-love speech that failure, no matter how painful, is not permanent, and that the best means of withstanding it is simply to show up the next day to school with the fortitude to try again. Losing also forces Charlie Brown to come to terms with his own limitations. He can’t rely on a miraculous victory to rescue him from his tormented childhood. He followed his dream, it didn’t pan out, and he ends up more or less where he started, only a little more experienced and presumably with a little more respect from his peers. They may no longer be able to refer to him as “failure-face,” but Lucy still yanks away the football when he becomes too hopeful. It’s incremental, rather than life-altering, progress.

Ever in touch with cultural currents, we Evangelicals have taken the “if you dream it, you can do it” ethic and Christianized it into something like “be radical for God!” In other words, be awesome, but be awesome for others. This exhortation — featured in books like Radical — I fear creates a community of spiritual meteors, burning brightly then burning out.

Forget radical. Forget awesome. Let’s ”settle” for simply faithful — demonstrating the fortitude to show up each day, diligently discharge your duties, and go to sleep with the resolve to do it again tomorrow. The desire even for radical spirituality, radical service, radical anything creates its own self-esteem trap, as our radical ideas lead us to believe that we have the talent, the drive, the dreams that are big enough to accomplish all we hope to accomplish.

As we citizens, young and old, ponder our possible awesomeness, it’s worth remembering two key scriptures, where God’s goals for man seem a bit more modest perhaps than our goals for ourselves.

First, Micah 6, verse 8:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Next, James 1, verse 27:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

Those goals are neither radical, nor awesome (at least not in the contemporary sense), but if the state of our increasingly faithless nation is any evidence, they’re even less attainable than our dreams.

This article first appeared here on National Review.

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