In the latest issue of In Character, UPenn psychologist Angela Duckworth criticizes the systematic attempt to improve self-esteem in children:

Q: Educators for some time now have put a premium on self-esteem. Schools strive to help kids develop self-esteem on the theory that other good things such as achievement will flow from increased self-esteem. Which is more important, self-discipline or self-esteem, for being successful as a student?

DUCKWORTH: Ah, how great to be asked this question! We did a study in which we followed kids for four years. We took their self-control ratings from parents and teachers and the kids themselves. We tracked them every year, and we kept their grades from school records, not from their own reports on their grades. We pitted self-control and self-esteem -- we also took measures for both -- against each other. Here's what we found: When kids increase in self-control, their grades go up later. But when kids increase their self-esteem, there is no effect on their grades. The bottom line is that our research shows that self-control is more important than self-esteem in determining achievement. People have been studying self-esteem for a long time, and this allows you to compare the self-esteem of kids who grew up in the nineties with, say, those who grew up in the seventies or eighties with regard to self-esteem. Self-esteem has gone up in the United States; achievement has not. If anything, compared with other countries, we have done worse, but our kids feel really good about themselves on average. What seems particularly interesting, and there is an article by J. P. Tangney on this, is that there is an uncoupling between your perception of your own competence and how much you like yourself. Many American kids, particularly in the last couple of decades, can feel really good about themselves without actually being good at anything. This is the problem with the "self-esteem at all costs" message. Self-esteem should be earned. I find that parents today, at least those in a high socioeconomic bracket, never want to say anything critical of their children. Everybody has to be a winner. You take your children to a soccer game, and they don't keep score anymore. They don't want anybody to lose. Well, it's a good thing for kids to lose sometimes. They see what it's like to get up again. They realize it's not the end of the world.

If you're looking for a comprehensive summary of why self-esteem doesn't predict success, check out this review article by Baumeister, et. al. Here's the takeaway:

Overall, the benefits of high self-esteem fall into two categories: enhanced initiative and pleasant feelings. We have not found evidence that boosting self-esteem (by therapeutic interventions or school programs) causes benefits. Our findings do not support continued widespread efforts to boost self-esteem in the hope that it will by itself foster improved outcomes. In view of the heterogeneity of high self-esteem, indiscriminate praise might just as easily promote narcissism, with its less desirable consequences.

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While I would agree that kids need to learn to win AND lose and that score-less soccer games are ridiculous, I also want to call into question how we define success. For I believe, that may be our society's true barrier. Is success only defined by good grades? Do grades even measure the right skills, attributes, and characteristics of a person's abilities? Do good grades predict future "success"?

The main question is do good grades show a person's superior abilities or just that a person is good at following directions? And if you agree that it may be the latter, then I further question whether that is the right measure since may of our most successful businesspeople, leaders, and inventors have been the ones that DON'T follow the rules and push the limits.

Something to consider...

I agree with Lisa that grades are a bad measurement of success as a society. If intelligence scores are consistently rising and satisfaction with self is rising without hurting grades, it sounds to me like we're doing pretty well.

Still, there are also studies that show that if you convince students that they can be smarter if they work hard, achievement goes up, and that a higher ratio of praise : reprimand has a strong correlation with future success. Clearly, children need to make mistakes in order to learn, but we still need to have a way to praise the effort.

I suppose, as with all things, they key is finding the right balance.

Thanks for an important look at "self-esteem" a concept that seems to be thrown around quite a bit among parents and educators. Growing or breeding self-efficacy by engaging students in experiences where they can work hard and experience success seems to be much more beneficial. Part of that experience of success is definitely the ability to self-regulate and have self-discipline. As a kindergarten teacher I help parents understand the need to facilitate independence early on in the child's school experience. Kids need scaffolding, encouragement and reminders that it's okay to fail, to lose and to persevere. I do agree that grades are not the only measure to determine success as one commenter wrote; I believe that the main point of this article and the research by Duckworth is that it's not helpful to broadly praise kids and tell them they're great. They will have to grow up and be ready for a competitive, sometimes cruel real world. We do our kids an injustice by sugar-coating, protecting them from resilience building opportunities. We can do better by helping kids,at an early age, to discover their unique strengths and interests and by encouraging hard work, praising their efforts and growth along the way.

This is another example of a fallacy that runs through the self-improvement literature. We identify a trait, like high self-esteem. We note that high achievers tend to have high self-esteem. So far so good. But now we figure that fixing the trait will fix the underlying condition. That is rarely the case. So, instead of helping students learn math so they can do better on math tests, we spend money to make them feel good about themselves because then, by some magic they will learn the multiplication tables.

#2: "intelligence scores are consistently rising" - really? Evidence? Or is it more about how the tests are simplifying? And by definition should not the scores stay at a mean of 100?

I think a big part of the problem lies implicit in Kevin's "ratio of praise : reprimand". In that reprimand is the problem. It took me a while, but I did eventually learn that there are no such things as 'mistakes' or 'failure' in a reprimandable sense, rather that every experience is an opportunity to learn something, about the world, about science, about ones' self. The winner-take-all philosophy of the sports arena should not be applied to life or to learning, but I fear that it is, and the damage it does to self-esteem has led to inappropriately focussing on directly propping up self esteem (by what are essentially propaganda methods) as the solution, rather than redirecting what it is one should derive self-esteem from. i.e. dealing with 'it'.

By Gray Gaffer (not verified) on 01 Jul 2009 #permalink

I personally think it would have been appropriate to quote one more sentence from the Baumeister et al. article.

Right following your quoted text is says: "Instead, we recommend using praise to boost self-esteem as a reward for socially desirable behavior and self-improvement." (there is more about it in the article)

The authors do seem to link high self-esteem to certain things that might improve performance (such as bouncing back from initial failures, speaking up in groups, assertiveness etc.).

Its just, that a kind of self-esteem which is not coupled to a desired kind of behaviour is meaningless. It doesn't mean that the concept of self-esteem is meaningless in the context of performance.

I found your blogpost to simplify things a little too much.

By Alf Petersen (not verified) on 01 Jul 2009 #permalink

"Overall, the benefits of high self-esteem fall into two categories: enhanced initiative and pleasant feelings. We have not found evidence that boosting self-esteem (by therapeutic interventions or school programs) causes benefits."

Enhanced initiative sounds like a benefit to me.

"Do good grades predict future "success"?"

Well yes, given that they directly lead to better and more opportunities for it.

"The main question is do good grades show a person's superior abilities or just that a person is good at following directions?"

Those two qualities are related, though. As a general rule, all kids want good grades, and it's the disciplined ones who get them.

"[Many] of our most successful businesspeople, leaders, and inventors have been the ones that DON'T follow the rules and push the limits."

Couldn't it be that we're just more likely to hear about those cases, and to celebrate them?

This is why it's important that bright children are 'stretched'. People have shown ( read that somewhere, might be? the talent code, coyle (?) ) that we should reward effort not achievement - self esteem built on being praised for achievement alone is the wrong kind, empty, causing people to aim for targets they know they can hit. Praising for effort creates good self-esteem because it encourages people to try even when they don't hit the target. However if bright children find everything easy, they never make any real effort, so you can't praise them for it. Thus they either learn that things 'should be easy' and then don't try when things get tough, or they are just praised for achievement all the time. When people are stretched, reaching for things just beyond where they have gone, it's easy to praise for effort and that brings genuine self-esteem.

There is a lot that could be said about the topic: self-control versus self-esteem. To keep it short:

First they are not mutually exclusive. When I was supervising student teachers in a Baltimore City school I was blown away by one of the teachers at the school and what she got out of these children who came from a pretty tough neighborhood and often broken families. She was a large black woman who did a lot of mothering for a lot of children who didn't get enough of that at home. As a result of the love she gave them so generously, they cared a great deal about what she thought of them and that enabled her to get them to work hard. She did this by being a fierce disciplinarian though she was soft spoken and laid back about it. At the end of a year with Mrs. R, I imagine these kids felt pretty good about themselves.... because she loved them and because they felt good about what they had achieved with her help. I aspired to be a teacher like her.

More about self-esteem. I wonder how this is measured. The truest test of how you feel about yourself is how you treat other people. A meditator friend of mine recently noticed that his 'road rage' at other drivers was really a projection of his own dissatisfaction with himself for being late.
Similarly, my 87 yearold aunt recently refused to invite her new roomate to join us for lunch because 'Emma isn't a nice person' and gave various reasons why she felt this way about the roomate. Fifteen minutes later at lunch, out of the blue she asked, "What would I say to her?" and it became clear that my aunt was very unhappy with herself and not Emma. My aunt's memory is impaired and she can't hold a much of a conversation. Nothing I could say would reassure her that she is a loveable person despite her limitations and that we would manage to have a nice lunch with Emma.
Self-loathing is perhaps the largest obstacle meditators come up against, not to mention the rest of us.

you should read michael legault's THINK! excellent commentary on self-esteem in children and whether you buy his argument or not it's a thought provoking read.

all in all, self-esteem is very much a socially constructed word. we can all argue about it non stop but in the end we all want good children.

No surprise that it's possible to be hugely successful as a student (as defined by good grades) and have a great deal of self-discipline AND be terribly unhappy and emotionally stunted. It's pretty sad stuff if our main measure of the quality of our child-rearing is to produce kids that get good grades.

I also think the roots of self-discipline are tangled and varied. Some kids have it because they were loved well in a secure and stable environment; some kids have it because it was their only survival strategy in a chaotic and neglectful upbringing. I'm inclined to think these kinds of studies are so blunt as to be worse than useless.

The sloppy assumptions underlying the "self-esteem" backlash worry me. Do I want an A student kid who goes to Harvard and makes a ton of money on wall street or a B student kid who is happy and caring? Not that they are mutually exclusive, but the over-emphasis on quantitative measures of "achievement" in a field so lacking in attention to the cultivation of other desirable human qualities is wacky.

Part of the problem is that our measures for achievement in this society are so out of step with values we might otherwise wish for our children (compassion, cooperation, an inner life, capacity to enjoy daily life, ability to sustain lasting relationships, concern about the problems of the wider world). I'd like to see if there's a correlation between high grades and adults who demonstrate these capacities in the real world.

Living in an environment where 7 year-old girls are PAID for each soccer goal they make, I don't think not scoring games and focusing on skills and intrinsic enjoyment for kids in sports is such a bad idea.

I think parental anxiety over our children's one-dimensional graded achievement and the pseudo-scientific justifications for this or that approach to child-rearing are bigger problems than kids' lack of achievement. Not to mention how low (and uneven) our investment is as a society in the kind of schooling that would give more kids a reason to want to achieve in that environment.

"Educators for some time now have put a premium on self-esteem."

This is simply not true. Educators lost interest in self-esteem years ago. For the past decade, at least, and probably longer, public schools have been obsessed with character education. Which, as far as I'm concerned, is much worse. In my family's experience, character education has been punitive, blaming, and intolerant of boys.

Self esteem is about more than good school grades. It is about the quality of life for children (and adults). It really is about creating a personal reference model that strengthens the positive sense of self. When oneâs self esteem is low, one is less participatory and less engaging with surroundings. The behavior is that of the classic self effacing individual, who does not think that their opinion matter and feel that they cannot add anything of value to the whole. In short, lacking self esteem causes the child to shy away from adding value to the collective. Very sad indeed! Such behavior only serves to further isolate the child. This downward trend can be reversed by systematically encouraging the child with positive feedback â not BS and false praise â but true positive statements timed when the child is receptive and appreciative. As when a job that benefit the family is well done (cleaning, setting the table, help with cooking etc.) Another perfect time to help the child with positive statements about one self is right before bed time. Tools such as these bedtime stories may help making this into a nightly ritual. Over the last 20 years, such methodology has helped European children overcome old societal stigmas that traditionally told children that what they have to say did not matter and that they had nothing to offer. In Scandinavia, the nasty Jante Law institutionalized negative self worth for decades to keep people in check. However, a concerted effort to work on improving childrenâs self esteem via positive reinforcement has changed this over the last two decades. Sure we do not have a Jante Law in America, but inner city children are frequently under tremendous peer pressure to do poorly in school precisely because the sub-culture in which they live has linked social acceptance and esteem to gang related activities. Looking at self esteem and grade causality is perhaps interesting, but there is a BIGGER issue at work here: what are our societal expectations for our children? And what is the behavior warranted in order for the child to gain esteem? Perhaps the good doctor should worry less about grades and more about gaining well adjusted children.

The self-esteem oriented education plan was designed to eliminate students' thoughts of 'I'm not smart enough,' 'I'm not talented enough,' 'I'm not cool enough,' etc. It was meant to allow students to feel comfortable in their own skin so they could pursue any dream they possessed. In reality, purposefully boosting kids' self-esteem seems to have hindered their self-motivation. I agree that some degree of self-esteem is necessary for success. The idea that higher confidence level will increase achievement is warranted by the fact that students who don't believe in themselves easily give up. Naturally, educators want students to avoid this. However, this boosting self-esteem plan has breached into inflating students' ego. Because kids felt so comfortable with their ability level, there was no determination to advance.
I was reading an education magazine that was sitting on my kitchen table the other day; it had an article regarding the improvement of students' self-esteem through their grades. It was similar to the point of this article. Students, who would be in undergraduate or graduate schools now, were given A's on assignments merely for the purpose of making them (students) feel good about themselves. This study showed that now, these students expect A's, not because of their hard work, but beause they believe that they are the 'type' of student who 'should' get A's.
It seems to me that a lot of self-confidence gives people a false sense of security. One doesnt need to try harder because they're comfortable with where they are, or they are scared of losing their reputation as smart, strong, fast, the best at math, basketball, whatever. I guess a little self-doubt is a good thing.

Is it possible to overemphasize grades to the detriment of other development? Yes, of course.

But to say that grades are not important misses a key point about our society.

If a family member needed urgent and intricate medical treatment, are you satisfied with an 'average' doctor? I'm not.

If a family member has a serious legal problem, are you satisfied with a below average lawyer? I'm not.

If you want to build an addition to your home, is a mediocre carpenter the person that you will call? Me neither.

If your child is kidnapped, are you ok with a below average detective on the case? Didn't think so.

We are all graded our whole lives. The people who do things the best will be the most sought after individual in almost all cases.

It is great to encourage students to do and pursue what they are best able to do well at. But they also need to learn to get good (or at least competent) at things that aren't their strong suit.

The idea that you can achieve this by handing out false praise to build confidence is ridiculous. The world is competitive in every way imaginable. To shelter kids from this sets them up for a terrible future.

Then there is the case involving the 2 year old that Coakley refused to prosecute because the mans father was one of her campaign donors. In this case the evidence was obvious that a sexual assault happened to the child and she was left burnt and bleeding. Some of the excuses over the refusal to prosecute in a timely fashion just do not hold water. On top of that is the accusation that the familys lawyer was trying to make capital out of the case followed by the accusation against the mother.

Ellen At the moment, Im more concerned with the preferential treatment given to certain peoples by the Federal Government at this point in time. I find that appalling. I recall from my high school days the quote: My freedom ends where yours begins and vice-versa. I feel my freedoms are being trampled out of existence.