Education Commentary

The Burden of Faulty Attitudes

By Janine Bempechat — May 10, 2000 6 min read

“My children work very hard when they are in school. The last thing they need is homework. What they really need is down time. As far as I’m concerned, teachers need to wake up to the fact that kids have a life outside of school.”

—Mother of 4th grade twins

For more than 20 years, I have witnessed the varied and creative ways in which many urban parents struggle to provide their children with the best possible education. All too familiar with societal obstacles, these are parents who advocate for teachers to expect the most from their children, whether they attend public, parochial, or voucher schools.

At the same time, many parents in more affluent communities, such as the mother quoted above, are expressing increased anger at attempts to infuse their children’s schools with the kind of academic rigor for which poor parents clamor. Many advocate for a more relaxed academic atmosphere, in part because they are concerned that academic pressure may undermine their children’s sense of well-being and self-esteem.

Apparently, academic competence is not considered in the debate over enhancing self-esteem.

In fact, concern over children’s self-esteem has become a tremendous source of anxiety among many parents. I cannot think of another time in our educational history when we have been so consumed over ensuring that our children feel good about themselves. Apparently, academic competence is not considered in the debate over enhancing self-esteem. What really counts is defined outside of the academic curriculum—athletics, drama, music, and fine arts.

Regrettably, where academic achievement is concerned, we are a nation that needs to get back on track. The school reform movement has failed to address the one issue that is in need of urgent attention: our wanting attitudes about academic achievement. We need a radical shift, not only in curricula, teacher training, and public school management, but in our attitudes about schooling and learning. If we are serious about improving academic achievement, we need to resolve our ambivalence about academic excellence. In particular, we need to do the following:

  • Worry less about self-esteem and more about competence.
  • Expect much more from our children.
  • Challenge our children to confront difficulty.
  • Take our children’s education much more earnestly.
  • Rein in our commitment to extracurricular activities.

While some of what I am advocating goes against the grain of what many educators and psychologists believe about healthy psychosocial development, I maintain that we have become far too concerned with our children’s happiness, to the detriment of their ability to cope with difficulty and setbacks. It is time we realized that self-esteem is overrated and that the collective hysteria over whether children have enough of it has become something of a runaway train, with no one at the controls.

The response of many educators and psychologists to the societal and economic upheavals that marked the past three decades has been to place children’s salvation in high self-esteem. Rich or poor, the new thinking is that if we can get youngsters to feel better about themselves, we can chip away at the problems that threaten their development into healthy and productive citizens. Increasing self-esteem has become the benchmark goal of intervention programs— virtually everyone who works with children, whether or not those children live troubled lives, works to ensure that they have high self-esteem.

In the service of this elusive goal, we have embraced assumptions that are undermining our efforts to help children genuinely feel better about themselves. Rather than throwing our considerable knowledge behind programs that provide remediation (a dirty word in some education circles), we have instead embraced lower standards and “social promotion,” a truly failed policy that has seen us graduating high school students who are functionally illiterate.

Our intent is well-meaning, but the truth is that high self-esteem is not a gift we can wrap and offer up as a birthday present. It evolves over time, through experiences both positive and negative. When we make it easy to attain goals that are difficult for others to attain, we do a terrible disservice to the children who most need our help. In short, we cannot and should not orchestrate our children’s experiences to ensure happiness. Yet many parents seem desperate to do so—to protect their children from challenges, setbacks, and failure.

When we make it easy to attain goals that are difficult for others to attain, we do a terrible disservice to the children who most need our help.

They fear that these unpleasant experiences and the resulting feelings of sadness, frustration, and anger might undermine their children’s self-esteem. In the long run, it is precisely these unpleasantries that allow for the greatest growth and maturity. If children only experience success that comes easily, they are certain to fall apart at the first sign of failure.

We must view discouraging experiences, theirs as well as our own, as opportunities to demonstrate and provide a model for how to cope with disappointment. Otherwise, we risk robbing children of critical early opportunities to develop strategies that will foster resilience in the face of failure.

To give children the opportunities to experience and cope with challenges, we need to raise our expectations and standards for their academic achievement. Barring the assignment of projects that are inappropriate for their age, children are capable of doing much, much more than we give them credit for. Parents who complain that assignments are too hard, take too long to do, and interfere with family time are unwittingly undermining teachers’ efforts to teach and students’ efforts to learn. Children cannot possibly acquire the skills they need, at the level at which they need them, unless we give them tasks that push them to reason, analyze, and synthesize information in new and creative ways. Challenging tasks serve as the training ground for the development of qualities we value: responsibility, diligence, persistence, and the ability to delay gratification.

In this context, I am convinced that youngsters today are involved in far too many activities outside of school. For good or ill, we live in a society that values well-roundedness. We want our children to develop their talents across a range of skills, to be smart, popular, athletic, and artistic. We believe that attention to several aspects of development will help enhance self-esteem, so much so that we view children who are “only good in school” as problematic, and describe them disparagingly as nerds, geeks, and “brainiacs.”

Admittedly, our concerns over well-roundedness have not evolved in a vacuum. College admissions and financial-aid policies have been complicit in fostering parental anxiety over well-roundedness. Any hope of students’ getting into the best colleges rests on their demonstrating competence in a variety of domains. And so, the pressure is on to be a top student, a record-holding athlete, and a community teenage leader.

I am not advocating a “back to basics” approach that would maximize the development of the academic child and minimize the development of the whole child—the proverbial pendulum cannot be allowed to swing that far back. Yet, given the nation’s educational underachievement, we need to rethink the ways in which we factor schooling into our children’s daily lives. We need to swing the pendulum back to some reasonable middle ground, one that acknowledges that children need opportunities to grow in a variety of ways and in a context that places academic achievement firmly at the top of every family’s list of priorities. We can indeed get our kids back on track.

Janine Bempechat is an assistant professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education in Cambridge, Mass. This essay is adapted from her new book Getting Our Kids Back on Track: Educating Children for the Future (Jossey-Bass).

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2000 edition of Education Week as The Burden of Faulty Attitudes