Daily Archives: May 3, 2009

Self-Esteem Chimera

Why are there so many problems with urban youth today?  Why the lack of attendance, the withering boredom in the classroom, the apathy?  Why is academic performance so low?

Big questions…actually, these questions are asked of youth in general, not just in urban areas.  But since I teach in an urban area, I see the drama every day up close and personal.

Everyone, including myself, has an answer to those questions.  Chance are, you’ve heard of one popular answer:  lack of high self-esteem.  Minorities, the conventional wisdom goes, have low self-esteem, and this causes the myriad of problems we see in urban youth today.

If that is the cause, then raising self-esteem would improve performance, learning, and character.  That begs a question: does it?  Perhaps prior to that, we should ask another question: do minorities, blacks in particular, have lower self-esteem than whites, and has this difference changed over time?

Sociologists Jean Twenge and Jennifer Crocker have tackled that latter question: they headed up the largest, most commprehensive study ever done on racial differences in self-esteem.  They gathered data from 712 samples of 375,254 people of all races and ethnicities who filled out self-esteem questionnaires between the 1950s and 1990s.  What they found was pretty surprising.

In the 1960s and 70s, black and white Americans scored about the same on measures of self-esteem.  Black Americans self-esteem started to creep up in the 1980s, however, until it was noticeably higher than whites’.  According to Twenge, “By the 1990s, 58% of blacks, and 61% of black college students, displayed above-average self-esteem.  This is surprising given the usual belief that ethnic minorities will have lower self-esteem; clearly, young black Americans feel good about themselves.  In fact, blacks’ self-esteem is higher than that of any other racial or ethnic group.” (Emphasis mine)

Both sociologists also found that though black students’ self-esteem was the highest, Hispanic and Asian youths’ self-esteem has increased as well.  Both groups still score lower than whites, but the gap is narrowing.

They go on to speculate as to possible causes of all this, but what I find most interesting is their answer to the first question begged above: does raising youths’ self-esteem translate into higher academic performance, and less poverty and crime?

Their answer is an emphatic “NO:”

Raising children’s self-esteem is not going to solve the problems of poverty and crime.  It doesn’t do much good for  a child to have high self-esteem if his grades are poor, he gets in trouble in class, and he has no concrete plan for the future.  Ethnic differences are a prime example of the disconnect between self-esteem and achievement.  For example, Asian-American kids usually report the lowest self-esteem of all ethnic groups, but they often achieve the most academically.  Black youngsters have the highest self-esteem, yet lag behind in academic achievement. And because self-esteem does not cause school achievement, self-esteem programs are once again putting the cart before the horse.  The time spent on self-esteem programs–for children of any background–is probably better spent on teaching academics and self-control. (Emphasis mine)

This isn’t just a wild speculation devoid of evidence.  Twenge notes that even in a book sponsored by the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility, the CA Task Force acknowledged that self-esteem is not linked to academic achievement or good behavior.

Twenge again:

Nor does high self-esteem protect against teen pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, alcoholism, drug abuse, or chronic welfare dependency.  Several comprehensive reviews of the research literature by different authors have all concluded that self-esteem doesn’t cause much of anything.

Substantial achievement causes high self-esteem, not the other way around, and this isn’t limited to minority children.  “Self-esteem is an outcome, not a cause,” notes Twenge.  Indeed, much of what passes as self-esteem these days is more akin to narcissism, and we’ve all had run ins with a narcissistic person.  Best to avoid producing more of them by well intentioned but ill conceived self-esteem programs.

Roy Baumeister, lead author of an extensive review on self-esteem research, concurs:

It is very questionable whether [the few benefits] justify the effort and expense that schools, parents and therapists have put into raising self-esteem…After all these years, I’m sorry to say, my recommendation is this: forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline.”

At this point, many self-esteem defenders launch their replies: “Are you saying kids should feel bad about themselves if they’re not good at something?”

No.  This fails to take what I wrote seriously.  Read it again and sincerely wrestle with it.

Kids should feel bad if they were lazy and didn’t try, but this is very different from having low self-esteem just because you aren’t good at something.  Today’s self-esteem programs promote good feelings without basis.  Why should Johnny feel good about himself?  Just because he’s Johnny.

How special.

You know what?  Sometimes failure can be a motivator.  When I was a kid, I failed my test for a belt in Tae-kwon-do six times.  Let that sink in…six times.  On the seventh try, I passed the test, and the confidence I gained from that was immense.  I kept going not because I had high self-esteem, but just because failure was a motivator for me.  My parents hammered an ethic of hard work and self-discipline in me.  Day after day, my dad preached that quitting was simply not an option.

I was far from perfect…in fact, I was kind of an idiot.  But their parenting paid dividends.

Some will note that often kids of all backgrounds will put up a confident front, especially in front of their peers.  It takes privacy, care, and time to peel away the hard layers.  After you do that, these folks say, you will find an epidemic of low self-esteem.

I work with kids, so I know the tough veneer they display all too well.  But this explanation strains out a gnat but swallows a camel: all these studies were done in privacy.  The youngsters would have no reason and no fear of being “found out” by the peer group.  The anonymity of the surveys would take the reason for the tough veneer away.

Other self-esteem defenders will come up with an anecdote or two of kids who truly have low self-esteem and do need help.

I acknowledge that what I’ve written doesn’t describe every kid.  Some do truly have low self-esteem, and they do need a leg up.  But these kids’ experience doesn’t negate all the research.  True enough, survey questions do not do justice to the whole human being, but these researchers have done their homework, and their views need to be acknowledged rather than simply dismissed.

Check out my other posts on education and youth.

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