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Book: Excerpt 'I'm Terrific'--and Demoralized

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Lowered expectations and appeals to self-centeredness are among the cultural factors that feed into the demoralization of today's young people, writes the Brown University professor William Damon in Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in America's Homes and Schools.

Mr. Damon, who is also the author of The Moral Child, suggests that increases in youth violence, suicide, teenage pregnancy, and delinquency can be linked to this pervasive sense of demoralization. In the excerpt below, he discusses the paradox inherent in efforts to raise children's self-esteem:

No matter how many correlations are found between self-esteem and anything else, self-esteem is just as likely to be a result of the positive developmental outcomes as it is to be a cause of them.

This is not just an academic dispute. It is a matter of serious consequence for young people whether we believe that self-esteem precedes healthy development or whether it derives from it. At the present time, there is a shared assumption among many that the direction of the relationship leads from self-esteem to healthy growth. According to this assumption, we should build self-esteem in children before we do anything else, using direct means such as extensive praise. Then and only then it can become possible to move on and encourage them to achieve, develop skills, and so on.If this assumption is wrong--if, that is, it has the developmental relationship backwards--many of our child-rearing practices are futile as well as counterproductive. By following such practices, we are overlooking the true source of self-esteem and in the process allowing the child's potential to lie fallow.

Early in my daughter's kindergarten year, she returned home with a 3-by-5 index card containing two words: "I'm terrific." Each child in her class had been given a similar card with the same two words. My daughter told me that her teacher had asked all the children to recite the words in class, to remember them, and to keep the cards for a further reminder. I asked my daughter what it all meant. She said that she was terrific and that her friends were terrific. She had no particular ideas about what they were all terrific at.

Such exercises are not unusual in today's elementary and preschools. I have seen many similar versions of "self-esteem boosting" in my visits to classrooms nationwide. These kinds of efforts are based upon the widespread assumption that self-esteem is the first business of child development and early education. Most teachers, day-care workers, and clinicians I know refer immediately to "low self-esteem" when children in their charge are having problems. Their solutions, naturally, are to find ways to encourage children to think well of themselves.

Now this practice is certainly admirable in its intent and message. All children are good--and, yes, terrific--in the sense that they are all valuable and special. There is nothing wrong, and everything right, with communicating this sentiment to young people. But we must realize that self-esteem is not a virtue that can be directly transmitted through abstract injunctions. Exercises such as "I'm terrific" do not implant the point in any sustainable way. Even more troubling is the ancillary message that such efforts often carry. ... [A] young mind often interprets an abstract incantation for self-esteem as an invitation into self-centeredness.

In and of itself, self-esteem offers nothing more than a mirage for those who work with children. Like all mirages, it is both appealing and perilously deceptive, luring us away from more rewarding developmental objectives. While capturing the imagination of parents and educators in recent years, the mission of bolstering children's self-esteem has obscured the more promising and productive possibilities of child-rearing. We would do better to help children acquire the skills, values~~~, and virtues on which a positive sense of self is properl~y built.

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