Why focussing on self esteem has backfired


– Recent decades have been marked by enormous social change. I mean, the whole notion
of how we approach concepts of gender, male versus female, the make up of families
has changed massively, certainly our shift from
modernism to post-modernism from where truth is absolute
to where truth is relative. These have been massive changes but one of the most
significant social shifts we’ve seen in recent decades
has flown under the radar, but I reckon it is enormously impactful, particularly as educators
look to understand what is driving the behavior, the attitudes of the
students they’re teaching. And this has been the rise
of what we often refer to now in retrospect as
the ‘era of self-esteem’. Now, the era of self-esteem
actually kicked off in 1979. That was the international
year of the child and that sparked the shift in the way by which we approached the whole notion of parenting. Up until that point, there was a sense in which kids were better to be seen and not heard, where from that point onwards, the focus was on making
sure the next generation were constantly told how
special and magnificent and unique they were. They were told, ‘you can
do anything you wanna do’, ‘be anything you want to be’. Now interestingly, Professor Jean Twenge from San Diego State University is probably one of the
most important thinkers around understanding the impact of the self-esteem
movement as it’s played out in subsequent years. And she reflects on the
fact that the 1980s saw essentially Baby Boomer
parents completely absorbed with the fact they wanted
to make sure their kids were constantly feeling
good about themselves. Now, the term that was used was the term, ‘unconditional positive regard’. In other words, we wanted
students to come through knowing that they were
amazing at all times, even if there was no basis for the praise, for the validation, the affirmation, it was just a sense of needing to constantly affirm young people. This was all very well-intentioned. You might think, well, hey, nothing bad could come of that, surely! And yet, if you look at the data now, as we look back on the era of self-esteem, there have been three
unintended consequences that you’ve gotta be very mindful of. The first of these is we’ve seen a rise in apathy
and passivity in students. For a group of students
who have been raised in an era where ‘every runner
in the race gets a ribbon’, which is a hallmark of
that self-esteem movement, it’s the idea that no one ever loses, everyone gets the same prize. I often refer to this as
communism on the sport field because that’s basically what it is. Apathy and passivity
has followed from this. Naturally, you would assume
that because after all, everyone gets the same
result, why bother trying? The second thing we’ve
seen with this group is there’s often a desensitization. For a generation who’ve
been constantly told how special and amazing
and wonderful they are, some of that feedback
has actually lost value. It doesn’t get cut through anymore! It’s almost like The Boy Who Cried Wolf and the challenge in us giving
so much praise and validation is that when you actually
give praise and validation for specific things,
it doesn’t get through. It’s not heard by this group because they’ve become desensitized. And the third thing we see from
this generation of students is that there’s often a dependence on external validation and praise. And the old saying is so true, “We crave what we feed on.” and for a generation who their whole lives have been fed a steady diet of extrinsic praise and validation, there’s now a dependency on that. Now, this is what psychologists call an external locus of control, always looking for external
sources of, ‘am I okay?’, ‘am I on track?’, rather than
an internal locus of control which often older the generations have. They’d say ‘I’m gonna try and apply myself and stretch myself because my reward is I feel
good, pride in my work. If someone externally
notices, it’s a bonus but it’s not why I tried
in the first place.’ But for a generation that’s been raised in the era of self-esteem, constantly given praise and validation, they’re now looking for it
far more than ever before. Actually, we had a report a few years ago that looked at how often
this generation as employees want to be thanked by their boss, 60% said once a day would be really good, 35% said two to three times
a day would be even better and the question of course is, why is there this need
for constant praise? Because it’s all they’ve ever heard. They’re often deriving a sense of value and identity from that. Now interestingly, this dependence on extrinsic praise and feedback, this is also what has driven
the use of social media. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this but this is a generation
who share everything on social media, Instagram,
and Facebook, and Snapchat, but they don’t just share. They then wanna check 12 seconds later, whatever they’ve shared,
how many likes did it get, how many comments were there, ’cause they gauge their value and the value of what they shared based on how much feedback
extrinsically it gets. If we look at what does work
in building self-esteem, what’s clear, very clear, is that constant praise and
validation hasn’t worked. And you look at the
research of Martin Seligman and others in his field, what
stands out is that mastery and self-efficacy is what actually
breeds genuine self-esteem. It’s being able to do
something and therefore saying ‘I feel powerful because
I have overcome the odds, I’ve struggled and I’ve prevailed.’ And so if we’re going to build students that will be future-fit, that will not be dependent
on extrinsic praise, thet are gonna have a growth
mindset not a fixed mindset, it is vital that we do focus on building self-efficacy and mastery, not just constantly giving
praise and validation. In the years ahead, we’re going to have to
try a different tactic if we’re gonna build true resilience and self-esteem in students.

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