‘Self-esteem’ is a slippery concept. Its multiple meanings include pride, confidence and self-respect. Then there’s ‘low self-esteem’, a catch-all term for just about any negative frame of mind – depression, anxiety, shame, you name it.
But as well providing an infinitely adaptable piece of jargon, ‘self-esteem’ also suggests a convenient solution to many of the problems that it supposedly describes. The issues facing an individual may well have an objective cause, but if they can be redefined as a matter of subjective experience, then all that is required is for the individual to feel good about himself or herself – there’s no need to actually be good (or to form a judgement as to what being good might objectively mean).
That still leaves the challenge of helping individuals to feel the right way about themselves – but, not to worry, esteem is a function of praise, and praise, consisting of words, is not in short supply. Thus the cultivation of self-esteem, especially in children, is not in fact the sign of a kinder, gentler society, but a cheap substitute for the development of character and the inspiration of achievement.
In a post for the Atlantic, Eleanor Barkhorn highlights research showing that lavish praise can be actively harmful:
“A new set of studies shows that for kids, high praise can have the opposite effect on self-esteem: It can actually make some children feel worse about themselves. ‘That’s Not Just Beautiful—That’s Incredibly Beautiful: The Adverse Impact of Inflated Praise on Children with Low Self-Esteem’ found that when adults give excessive compliments to children with low confidence, the children were less likely to pursue challenges.”
“One of the studies involved 240 children who visited a science museum in the Netherlands… the children were asked to draw a famous painting and told that a professional painter would evaluate it. After they finished their paintings, the children were given a card from the painter (who did not in fact exist) with one of three responses: “You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!” (inflated praise); “You made a beautiful drawing!” (non-inflated praise); or no comment about the drawing at all (no praise).”
The children were then asked to make a new drawing, but had the choice of a simple or complex subject:
“It turned out that the students with low self esteem were less likely to do a complex drawing if they’d received inflated praise. ‘Compared to non-inflated praise, inflated praise decreased challenge seeking in children with low self-esteem,’ the researchers wrote.
“So it seems that the best way to improve kids’ self-esteem is to give them frank, straightforward praise…”
Or, to put it another way, it’s best to tell them the truth.
Of course, there are many ways of doing so – you wouldn’t want to criticise a child’s drawing like Brian Sewell reviewing a below-par exhibition at the Tate Modern – but some grounding in reality is required:
“The only problem is, though, that parents and teachers often do the opposite. The researchers also found that adults are more likely to heap inflated praise on children with low-self esteem—presumably in a well-intentioned attempt to make them feel better.”
What isn’t explained is why this doesn’t work. It might be that the children simply don’t believe what they’ve been told – and therefore lose faith not only in themselves, but also in the adults that are supposed to be guiding them. Or, perhaps, they do believe the hype and therefore don’t feel the need to try as hard next time. Alternatively, both explanations might be true – applying in different ways to different children.
In the end, it’s hard to be sure – which, in the make-believe world of self-esteem, is the only thing you can count on.