The myth of self-esteem

A long-time educational myth is exploded:

For decades, the prevailing wisdom in education was that high self-esteem would lead to high achievement. The theory led to an avalanche of daily affirmations, awards ceremonies and attendance certificates — but few, if any, academic gains.

Now, an increasing number of teachers are weaning themselves from what some call empty praise. Drawing on psychology and brain research, these educators aim to articulate a more precise, and scientific, vocabulary for praise that will push children to work through mistakes and take on more challenging assignments. . . .

A growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities. As schools ratchet up academic standards for all students, new buzzwords are “persistence,” “risk-taking” and “resilience” — each implying more sweat and strain than fuzzy, warm feelings.

“We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,” Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck said. “That has backfired.”

Dweck’s studies, embraced in Montgomery schools and elsewhere, have found that praising children for intelligence — “You’re so clever!” — also backfires. In study after study, children rewarded for being smart become more likely to shy away from hard assignments that might tarnish their star reputations.

But children praised for trying hard or taking risks tend to enjoy challenges and find greater success. Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things.

via In schools, self-esteem boosting is losing favor to rigor, finer-tuned praise – The Washington Post.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    In baseball, when a guy strikes out, he goes back to the dugout and is basically ignored by everyone.

    In basketball, when a guy misses a freethrow, the team on the court reaches out and shakes his hand.

    Everytime I see this, I think of our kids being heaped upon with empty praise in school.

    I know. I need to get a life. (not enough..or maybe too much s.e.. as a kid)

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    In baseball, when a guy strikes out, he goes back to the dugout and is basically ignored by everyone.

    In basketball, when a guy misses a freethrow, the team on the court reaches out and shakes his hand.

    Everytime I see this, I think of our kids being heaped upon with empty praise in school.

    I know. I need to get a life. (not enough..or maybe too much s.e.. as a kid)

  • Joe

    “A growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities.”

    Wow. Really we need a growing body of research to tell us this? Does common sense have no place in the educational theory any more?

  • Joe

    “A growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities.”

    Wow. Really we need a growing body of research to tell us this? Does common sense have no place in the educational theory any more?

  • http://quiacreeds.blogspot.com/ David Oberdieck

    The undeserved praise, overblown, is a lie and lies do not help an individual.

    Obviously the opposite extreme is not the fix – overtly critical and negative.

    As parents we need to encourage. We need to praise especially in light of a child’s developmental level. Always push the child on to improvement

  • http://quiacreeds.blogspot.com/ David Oberdieck

    The undeserved praise, overblown, is a lie and lies do not help an individual.

    Obviously the opposite extreme is not the fix – overtly critical and negative.

    As parents we need to encourage. We need to praise especially in light of a child’s developmental level. Always push the child on to improvement

  • Dave Wiist

    The world continues to have a hard time finding a substitute for God’s Law that has the ability to tell us the truth about our abilities and God’s expectations and the Gospel’s ability to raise sinners out of the ash heep to seat them with princes.

  • Dave Wiist

    The world continues to have a hard time finding a substitute for God’s Law that has the ability to tell us the truth about our abilities and God’s expectations and the Gospel’s ability to raise sinners out of the ash heep to seat them with princes.

  • Cincinnatus

    Would it be untoward to respond simply as follows? “Duh.”

  • Cincinnatus

    Would it be untoward to respond simply as follows? “Duh.”

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “Does common sense have no place in the educational theory any more?”

    Nope, nor do thousands of years of experience.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “Does common sense have no place in the educational theory any more?”

    Nope, nor do thousands of years of experience.

  • Rose

    Japanese parents simply say: “You must work harder.”

  • Rose

    Japanese parents simply say: “You must work harder.”

  • steve

    Too little, too late for the generation just graduating now. But I’m sure the knowledge that they are good enough, smart enough, and that, dogonnit, people like them, will be enough to sustain them in the line for government cheese.

  • steve

    Too little, too late for the generation just graduating now. But I’m sure the knowledge that they are good enough, smart enough, and that, dogonnit, people like them, will be enough to sustain them in the line for government cheese.

  • –helen

    The government was clearing cheese out of their Missouri caves in the 80′s; it was a medium of exchange among seminarians in 5 lb blocks.
    “I need some help with my car. I’m broke but would you take 10 lbs of [the cheese flavor my kids won't eat]?”
    My shade tree mechanic son was on the receiving end of these deals.

    (Is the guvmint back in the cheese business?)

  • –helen

    The government was clearing cheese out of their Missouri caves in the 80′s; it was a medium of exchange among seminarians in 5 lb blocks.
    “I need some help with my car. I’m broke but would you take 10 lbs of [the cheese flavor my kids won't eat]?”
    My shade tree mechanic son was on the receiving end of these deals.

    (Is the guvmint back in the cheese business?)

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    As a teacher I can say…. Yep!

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    As a teacher I can say…. Yep!

  • JDB

    David at #3. Thanks for your point. In the end we need to be neither all positive nor all negative. Children need both- praise when it’s called for, criticism when it’s needed. Each has its place at the right time and in the right measure. Thankfully, it sounds as if we are finally learning that.

  • JDB

    David at #3. Thanks for your point. In the end we need to be neither all positive nor all negative. Children need both- praise when it’s called for, criticism when it’s needed. Each has its place at the right time and in the right measure. Thankfully, it sounds as if we are finally learning that.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Japanese parents simply say: “You must work harder.”

    Easy for them to say.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Japanese parents simply say: “You must work harder.”

    Easy for them to say.

  • Deborah

    The whole self-esteem crock has finally been exposed. We taught our three kids (who were mostly home-schooled up to college age) that they would have to work harder, think smarter, and be kinder than most people they meet. When they went off to college, we reminded them that their actions have consequences and to live their lives by the Golden Rule. They grew up with a healthy self-respect, but more importantly a respect for others and a dependence on God.

  • Deborah

    The whole self-esteem crock has finally been exposed. We taught our three kids (who were mostly home-schooled up to college age) that they would have to work harder, think smarter, and be kinder than most people they meet. When they went off to college, we reminded them that their actions have consequences and to live their lives by the Golden Rule. They grew up with a healthy self-respect, but more importantly a respect for others and a dependence on God.

  • Jeff Bolzman

    Imagine that. It only took 30 years for the “research” to disprove self-esteem. St. Paul knew it all along. He called it the “flesh” and told us that nothing good dwells there. Jesus was despised and rejected, and we esteemed Him not. Guess self-esteem is not a new problem after all.
    Being a teacher and having been force fed the whole “self-esteem” doctrine at Concordia, Seward, I soon found out that it didn’t work. Then I learned what a lie it all was. Mostly it is a myth of SELF STEAM which is nothing but a lot of hot air. Another name could be pride, which goes before a fall. Sorry if this deflates anyone on this blog.
    A great alternative is the book CHRIST ESTEEM by Don Matzat. It lays out the root of sin and the wonder of the cross. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That is something to hold in high esteem.

  • Jeff Bolzman

    Imagine that. It only took 30 years for the “research” to disprove self-esteem. St. Paul knew it all along. He called it the “flesh” and told us that nothing good dwells there. Jesus was despised and rejected, and we esteemed Him not. Guess self-esteem is not a new problem after all.
    Being a teacher and having been force fed the whole “self-esteem” doctrine at Concordia, Seward, I soon found out that it didn’t work. Then I learned what a lie it all was. Mostly it is a myth of SELF STEAM which is nothing but a lot of hot air. Another name could be pride, which goes before a fall. Sorry if this deflates anyone on this blog.
    A great alternative is the book CHRIST ESTEEM by Don Matzat. It lays out the root of sin and the wonder of the cross. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That is something to hold in high esteem.

  • Dennis Peskey

    The problem came quite awhile ago when we removed shame from our vocabulary and replaced the terminology with self-esteem. There is no shame in a child who sincerely tries and fails – more importantly, neither should the attempt garner self-esteem.

    We can learn from our failures; the real lesson is that we learn not to fail. By positively reinforcing mere effort without correct results, we encourage failure. To achieve success, it is a correct result obtained through proper means which should warrant praise and bolster self-esteem. When our children fail, we should love them enough to say no and correct their methods thereby helping them succeed. To take the lazy way out and reward the effort does little to further their growth. The axiom “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” has merit. The schools and the parents should be competent to assess whether the child has the given ability to succeed in the endeavors they undertake; not every child will become a rocket scientist or a theologian. But then, the world still needs ditch-diggers. If that be the case, teach them the best method to employ a shovel and let them be the very best ditch-digger in three counties.
    Pax,
    Dennis

  • Dennis Peskey

    The problem came quite awhile ago when we removed shame from our vocabulary and replaced the terminology with self-esteem. There is no shame in a child who sincerely tries and fails – more importantly, neither should the attempt garner self-esteem.

    We can learn from our failures; the real lesson is that we learn not to fail. By positively reinforcing mere effort without correct results, we encourage failure. To achieve success, it is a correct result obtained through proper means which should warrant praise and bolster self-esteem. When our children fail, we should love them enough to say no and correct their methods thereby helping them succeed. To take the lazy way out and reward the effort does little to further their growth. The axiom “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” has merit. The schools and the parents should be competent to assess whether the child has the given ability to succeed in the endeavors they undertake; not every child will become a rocket scientist or a theologian. But then, the world still needs ditch-diggers. If that be the case, teach them the best method to employ a shovel and let them be the very best ditch-digger in three counties.
    Pax,
    Dennis

  • George

    I can’t believe we had to fund a study to tell us this…..

  • George

    I can’t believe we had to fund a study to tell us this…..

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    @ 16

    Hey, over educated ninnies have bills to pay, too. Just because their work serves no logical purpose doesn’t mean they don’t want a paycheck. They don’t want to do real work that serves real people like actually teaching kids, or working in a day care, or trash collection, or pouring concrete. No way. Are you kidding? They have expensive credentials and are oh so more important than those doing work that actually has to be done. If real work doesn’t exist, they get their friends in high places to invent some make work, with attendant salary and benefits.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    @ 16

    Hey, over educated ninnies have bills to pay, too. Just because their work serves no logical purpose doesn’t mean they don’t want a paycheck. They don’t want to do real work that serves real people like actually teaching kids, or working in a day care, or trash collection, or pouring concrete. No way. Are you kidding? They have expensive credentials and are oh so more important than those doing work that actually has to be done. If real work doesn’t exist, they get their friends in high places to invent some make work, with attendant salary and benefits.


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