School Self-Esteem Programs Get Mixed Grades

A teacher sends a "magic box" around class, telling the students to look inside and answer the question: "Who is the most special person in the world?"

The answer they're supposed to give — "Me" — is a no-brainer. The box has a mirror in it.

Such self-esteem building programs have become widespread in public schools across the country, and are praised by supporters. But they have also been slammed by critics who call them ineffective at best, and perhaps even harmful to students' well-being.

"It promotes too much self-absorption and focus on the self," charged Dr. Charles Elliott, a psychologist who co-authored Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth. "It can even run the risk of promoting narcissism."

Elliott, his wife and co-author Dr. Laura Smith and other opponents say that's because self-esteem programs rely on exercises that lavish empty praise on kids, whether they've earned it or not.

"This is linked with the feel-good movement," Elliott said. "It's very dangerous. That's part of what drug and substance abuse and grade inflation are all about. Research says the most important thing is to learn delayed gratification and frustration tolerance."

Most public schools in the country, as well as a number of private Catholic schools, currently have some form of self-esteem curriculum for children as young as 5 or 6, and as old as 17 or 18. The movement, which took hold in the early 1980s and has since grown, began with the goal of combating teenage ills like violence and delinquency, unwanted pregnancy, high dropout rates, and chronic absenteeism.

"I was looking for a way to keep kids out of trouble," said Robert Reasoner, a forerunner of the movement and author of Building Self-Esteem, one of the first curricula used. Reasoner says the programs have reduced discipline problems in school districts by 50 to 75 percent.

Critics question those figures, however.

"People used to think that low self-esteem was associated with drug abuse, violence — the truth is the literature on that is a little bit thin," Elliott said. "But overly inflated self-esteem and narcissism appear to be huge risk factors."

Reasoner, currently president of the International Council for Self-Esteem, believes opponents are out of touch with what is going on in schools today.

"Many of the criticisms written are relating to programs that are well outmoded," he said. "Ten or 15 years ago, there were some that weren't based on accomplishment, and focused primarily on helping kids feel good about themselves. Those weren't complete."

Reasoner agrees that one-dimensional "I am wonderful" exercises are futile. Instead, he said, successful self-esteem lessons aim to develop five components within children: a sense of security, identity, belonging, purpose, and competence.

"Healthy, authentic self-esteem is a feeling of self-worth and a feeling of competence," he said. "You can't just have feelings of worth without competence; that leads to conceit and defensive self-esteem."

Still, skeptics aren't convinced that every curriculum is multi-faceted and helpful, and say there's no real way to regulate how a teacher or school incorporates the lessons.

"These programs are not all perfect," said John See, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers. "It's true that kids do better when they believe in themselves. But if the programs separate achievement from self-esteem, whether they do well or not, that's not good."

See said the best way to improve students' self-esteem is "to set high goals and help them reach those goals ... We don't direct a lot of our attention to self-esteem programs; we focus on raising standards."

The movement has extended beyond schools and into homes — where, Smith believes, baby boomer parents have avoided negative encounters with children out of guilt over divorce or other difficult family situations.

"You want to have the time with the kids be positive," she said. "Parents don't want to set limits or say no."

She said it's important for teachers and parents to strike a middle ground, so children understand that true self-confidence doesn't come easily.

"You don't get self-esteem by saying, 'Aren't I wonderful?'" said Smith. "You get self-esteem by doing good work, being good to other people and being appreciated for who you are."