When Everybody’s/Nobody’s Special: The Problem of Self-Esteem

“Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.” — George S. Patton, in speech to US Third Army prior to the Normandy invasion (1944)

The history of America is a series of struggles—struggles that had winners and losers.

Colonial expansion, and the subsequent expansion of the West, did happen at the expense of Native Americans.  The Civil War, while fought valiantly on both sides, had a winner.  The North still won today: take a look at the population of the “New South”, if you don’t believe me.  Urban “renewal”, or the idealistic recomposition of American cities in the postwar years, came at the expense of the very poor, mostly African-American and Hispanic minorities, which were pawned into housing developments that became urban war zones.

Yet there are those that still insist on children not suffering through loss or failure—because it “makes them feel bad.”

Little league without scores.  Jumping rope without ropes.  Classes without grades or ranks.  A world where everything is wrapped in squishy Nerf ball material and no one’s feelings are hurt. 

A perfect society—perfectly mediocre.

Self-esteem has been the buzzword du jour in child development for decades.  Maintaining a child’s self-esteem, it is believed, will give that child the confidence to succeed in all their endeavors.  This is, for the most part, true: much of human capacity is based on our emotional center.  If we identify ourselves as successful, chances are good that it will be so. 

Some, like Donald Trump, even overcompensate in this area in order to achieve a modicum of success.  It generates results, even though the protagonist is downright insufferable.

Yet many educators have taken this to mean self-esteem AT ALL COSTS.  Today’s overprotective society requires children to dress in hockey pads and a mask in order to play outside.  Playing with other children requires pre-appointed “play dates” with pre-selected children deemed most suitable to the child’s temperament. 

Most insidious of all, no one is allowed to win.  If there are no winners, then there are no losers, no second place, and especially no failures.   We all feel special, we all feel valued…hooray, hand me the mango square and soy milk box, Mommy.

Yet there is too much of a good thing.  Emotions, like commodities, operate on supply and demand.  If everyone feels special, it’s not that important to be special.

George Will noticed this in a recent Washington Post column.  He cites the recent book NutureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, which upends longstanding myths about self-esteem.  He states that:

“…the theory that praise, self-esteem and accomplishment increase in tandem is false. Children incessantly praised for their intelligence (often by parents who are really praising themselves) often underrate the importance of effort. Children who open their lunchboxes and find mothers’ handwritten notes telling them how amazingly bright they are tend to falter when they encounter academic difficulties.”

Bronson and Merryman state that overpraised children are more often prone to cheating since they haven’t dealt with failure in a constructive way.  “We put our children in high-pressure environments,” they write, “seeking out the best schools we can find, then we use the constant praise to soften the intensity of those environments.”  To keep that status and reputation, many children seek the easiest and most painless path to maintain their status quo, avoiding challenging, yet rewarding, opportunities.

We see this all too often in real life, such as the kid who “coasts” through the standardized tests knowing that this is the only arbiter for graduation.  There’s also the teenage genius who figures to take the easiest classes in order to maintain an artificially high grade point average.  Or the timid weenie who insists on using pennies at poker night instead of dumping a yuppie food stamp in the kitty.

If this weren’t reason enough to give up the coodle crutch, then think of the species.  If my Darwin is correct—and it may be rusty from hanging out with cuckoo creationists—then human beings are the only animals where the “less fit” are not only allowed to survive, but thrive. 

How is mankind going to fend off aliens, future superanimals, or an attack of killer dolphins if we’re all beating around the tetherball with kneepads and safety helmets, making sure no one skins their knee?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some freak eugenicist.  There’s no need to breed a superhuman with a 200+ IQ, the strength of Hercules, a mean fast break and the ability to win a land war in Asia (something today’s homo sapiens can’t seem to figure out). 

I’m simply suggesting that praise, while an important part of a child’s emotional development, can be destructive if overdone.  We can learn a lot from praise and encouragement, but it is meaningless if done without effort, sacrifice, and especially the occasional failure.

Teachers, moms, dads, principals: let the kids fall down once in a while.  Better yet, let them pick themselves up once they’ve fallen.  The more a kid picks himself up, the more determination he’ll develop to keep going until victory is achieved.  If anything, praise effort—especially effort after a failure.  This way, the struggling student can push themselves, rather than the artificial and often ingenuine efforts of adults to encourage through constant praise.

 Life doesn’t care about people’s feelings.  What it does have is plenty of winning and losing—and probably more of the latter.  The sooner a kid gets used to the realities of life, the better adjusted and more mature they will become.

Next time your kid is in the no-score kickball game, have him aim straight for the crotch of the pansy-ass who thought of this waste of time.  Believe me, there’s a definite winner there.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “When Everybody’s/Nobody’s Special: The Problem of Self-Esteem

  1. Great Website! I was wondering if I might be able to quote a portion of your site and use a couple of things for a school assignment. Please drop me an email whether or not its ok or not. Thanks

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