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Misunderstanding Self-Esteem

By Walt Gardner — March 25, 2013 1 min read

Developing self-esteem in students is the subject of countless articles and books. Yet I wonder if it is properly understood. I’ve always believed that young people are a lot smarter than we think when it comes to distinguishing between praise they genuinely deserve and praise they gratuitously receive.

Jessica and Tim Lahey address this difference as teachers, respectively, in middle school and medical school (“How Middle School Failures Lead to Medical School Success,” The Atlantic, Mar. 22). They describe their experiences when they handed out criticism to their students. “The most challenging students (and families) are those who expect success to be automatic, a birthright, something they should achieve just by showing up. To them, education isn’t about learning, or about sharpening skills or broadening horizons. It is about the acquisition of straight A’s and trophies.”

I don’t know of any teacher in K-12 who hasn’t been on the receiving end of this attitude of entitlement. How they respond is a telling commentary on how much things have changed in schools over the years. There was a time when self-esteem was not the determining factor in considering the grade that students received. Teachers took no pleasure in disappointing students with a lower grade than they thought they earned, but they based their evaluation primarily on student performance.

Today, however, teachers walk on eggs out of concern they may be shredding the ego of students. But as the Laheys correctly explain, students who learn that failure is an unavoidable part of life are far more likely to be successful later on. Some of the most painful failures I endured in school were invaluable in my growth. I think we do young people a terrible disservice when we try to protect them from failure. It’s the way teachers approach the issue that is crucial.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.