Youth Services Law

Encouraging Self-Esteem Can Be Toxic

OOvercoming Difficultyne of the cardinal rules of working in a school, day care center, camp, or mentoring organization is that you must not harm a child's self-esteem.  This rule is so woven into our culture that it persists in spite of a growing body of research that our ways of catering to a child's self-esteem can cause significant psychological harm.

Several years ago, The Atlantic ran an excellent article entitled, "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy."  The author, Lori Gottlieb, quoted several psychologists and studies about the damage done by inflating children's self-esteem:

 “People who feel like they’re unusually special end up alienating those around them,” [Jean] Twenge [psychology professor at San Diego State University] says. “They don’t know how to work on teams as well or deal with limits. They get into the workplace and expect to be stimulated all the time, because their worlds were so structured with activities. They don’t like being told by a boss that their work might need improvement, and they feel insecure if they don’t get a constant stream of praise. They grew up in a culture where everyone gets a trophy just for participating, which is ludicrous and makes no sense when you apply it to actual sports games or work performance. Who would watch an NBA game with no winners or losers? Should everyone get paid the same amount, or get promoted, when some people have superior performance? They grew up in a bubble, so they get out into the real world and they start to feel lost and helpless. Kids who always have problems solved for them believe that they don’t know how to solve problems.

A more recent article in Scientific American, "The Secret to Raising Smart Kids," agrees, based on research from a different perspective.  The author, Carol Dweck, a chaired psychology professor at Stanford, reviewed several decades of research suggesting "that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings."   In other words, telling children that they are intelligent or special or gifted leaves them feeling that if they cannot solve a problem quickly, then they cannot find a solution.

But, of course, we want to encourage children.  According to Dr. Dweck, the key is how to praise them.  Rather than praising them for innate characteristics or simply existing, we need to praise them for continued effort and solving problems.  Constantly telling children that they are intelligent leaves them believing that, if they cannot solve a problem on the first try, they never will be able to do so.  By contrast, praising them for solving a problem by working hard encourages resilience and learning.  As Dr. Dweck phrased it, "Praise for the specific process a child used to accomplish something fosters motivation and confidence by focusing children on the actions that lead to success."

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