How this one simple trick changed a generation
May 30, 2017 2:29 PM   Subscribe

How the self esteem craze took over America : "Believe in yourself and anything is possible, and You have to love yourself first before you can love someone else. “Those phrases are taken for granted as advice we give teens and adults,” explained Twenge, “but they’re very modern. At least in written language, they were very uncommon before about 1980, and then became much more popular. They’re all very individualistic, they’re all very self-focused, they’re also all delusional."

NYMag writes about the history of the self esteem craze, the dubious science behind it, the politics that informed it, and how it shaped a generation. This isn't your usual millennial bashing. The article also compares the self esteem movement to the current focus in research and policy on "grit" and perseverance as another one-size-fits-all, individualistic to the detriment of a social structure view, solution to the human condition.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity (125 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
 
"At root, this national obsession was mostly the work of a very eccentric politician: John Vasconcellos."
Wikipedia: "He represented the Silicon Valley as a member of the California State Assembly for 30 years and a California State Senator for 8 years."

This explains so much.
posted by entropicamericana at 2:48 PM on May 30, 2017 [20 favorites]


Can I just say everyone in this thread is looking splendid today.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:48 PM on May 30, 2017 [51 favorites]


Self-esteem as an idea might be various kinds of bullshit, but the general uptake of it has lead to a lot more in what is termed 'emotional literacy'.
posted by The River Ivel at 2:50 PM on May 30, 2017 [15 favorites]


This explains so much.

He certainly explains term limits in California's state legislature.
posted by elsietheeel at 2:57 PM on May 30, 2017 [2 favorites]


Jesse Singal writes about the history of the self-esteem craze, not NYMag. And I may be just feeling cranky this morning, but I didn't love his writing on Tuvel and I tend to find his brand of writing just a little too something in general.
posted by frumiousb at 2:58 PM on May 30, 2017 [7 favorites]


(I know it was in NYMag, but Singal has a very particular voice and a very particular point of view. I find this article more characteristic of his voice than of NYMag in general.)
posted by frumiousb at 3:02 PM on May 30, 2017 [2 favorites]


I blame Stuart Smalley.
posted by Splunge at 3:04 PM on May 30, 2017 [8 favorites]


I blame the Little Engine that Could.
posted by sammyo at 3:06 PM on May 30, 2017 [13 favorites]


I remember my self-esteem course in elementary school. For an hour every day for two weeks or so, we got to think and talk about how special we were and how special other people were. Then it was back to the snobbery and bullying of everyday life. The course was about as relevant to our daily lives as diagramming sentences. But then, as a professional I have occasionally used that knowledge of sentence structure to think through some technical language, so perhaps I am unfair to sentence diagrams.

I'm glad, though, that this is not just another one of those articles that implicitly or explicitly longs for a time when people repressed all their feelings and hated themselves just as much as everyone else thought they should and didn't take any medications that you couldn't buy at a bar. There's still something there amidst all the nonsense. For example, of course you can love someone else without loving yourself, but if you don't feel some love for yourself, you won't have the right boundaries, and you are more liable to choose bad partners and bad relationship behavior. People need self-esteem, but first they need a self to esteem. It's heavy for a bunch of fifth-graders.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:06 PM on May 30, 2017 [25 favorites]


I don't blame The Reverend Lovejoy
posted by thelonius at 3:13 PM on May 30, 2017 [2 favorites]


Some wag,(George Bernard Shaw,) once said, "Self sacrifice enables us to sacrifice others, without blushing." In the sense that respecting self, nurturing self, especially in the absence of external nurturing; helps us see the importance of respecting others. Respect is an active verb, not a thought exercise.
posted by Oyéah at 3:13 PM on May 30, 2017 [27 favorites]


The self-esteem craze seems to have a fairly simplistic and not-very-surprising root in that other pillar of American culture: that you, as a person, are shit and don't deserve life itself, much less happiness so get the fuck back in your room before I beat you and your whore mother again.
posted by GuyZero at 3:17 PM on May 30, 2017 [66 favorites]


Let us not forget the everyone gets a trophy, not just the winner, mentality.
posted by Splunge at 3:19 PM on May 30, 2017 [1 favorite]


Can I be the first one to blame Ayn Rand? (By way of Nathaniel Branden.)
posted by asperity at 3:19 PM on May 30, 2017 [7 favorites]


I blame Will Powers
posted by wemayfreeze at 3:30 PM on May 30, 2017 [3 favorites]


My undergraduate honours thesis in psychology 20+ years ago was doing several different forms of multivariate analysis of about 7000 participants worth of self-esteem inventory data. It included all of the major inventories used at the time with responses from students, prisoners, corporate employees and institutionalized mental patients.

Not one of the inventories had the psychometric properties the creators claimed they should.

It was a hell of an ironic way to finish a degree and head off to graduate school feeling completely shit about the field I had chosen.
posted by srboisvert at 3:30 PM on May 30, 2017 [44 favorites]


Let us not forget the everyone gets a trophy, not just the winner, mentality.
I usually see this bemoaned by members of a generation who lived with the expectation that a high school education was enough to ensure lifelong non-poverty-level employment, so you'll have to excuse me if I can't bring myself to grouse about Kids These Days
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:46 PM on May 30, 2017 [155 favorites]


I appreciate that Mr. Singal eventually finds his way back around to an honest answer, which is that It's Complicated.

As someone who's lost a lot of time to hating himself, I'm reasonably sure that at least some of the self-esteem movement's efforts are well-placed. Likewise, with Grit (ugh) in vogue, it seems intuitive that there's at least some willingness to continue to apply effort in the face of initial difficult. And of course that's Complicated too.

The older I get, the more ambivalent about the worthwhile-ness of the "self" I become. As a chronically self-fascinated introspector, I can't help but prefer liking myself to hating myself, but what I'd really like is to get the fuck out of my own head for more than three minutes at a time and do. Something.

Maybe somewhere in the fuzzy intersection of Grit and Self-Esteem there is the facility to pause metacognition entirely—to stop thinking about how you feel about things—and to simply and wholly engage in the task at hand, whether it's study or work or art or kindness or sex or whatever. Unrolling the loop of the self—at least temporarily, solves the problems of esteem and persistence simultaneously. When there's no thing doing the experiencing, then there's nothing to evaluate for esteem, and no entity whose reticence needs to be thwarted by grit.

I'm pretty sure I've gotten over my self exactly zero times, a number I do not expect to rise.
posted by Sokka shot first at 3:46 PM on May 30, 2017 [71 favorites]


I had no idea this was such a concerted, orchestrated effort. I just assumed that it was some kind of nebulous trend bubbling up organically somehow, largely based on the fact that there was virtually nothing backing it up.

My kid's schooling was just lousy with it, often tied up in drug abuse prevention programs. I'd pretty regularly pull him out of optional activities because I didn't see the point of having a bunch of unqualified randos indoctrinating my kid in some worldview for no good reason. He didn't need it (he was a bit on the cocky side if anything), and at times, it'd take up so much of his classtime they'd just send the kids home with hours and hours of tedious extra homework to make up for it. So I'd excuse him from the creepier stuff and he'd go get his work done in the library or someplace.

Ugh, now I'm angry about it all afresh. Moreso even, because apparently the powers that be have failed to even learn a more general lesson about doing nonconsensual social experiments on kids.

Hey. Wouldn't it be weird if we found out that there wasn't some simple, universal formula for "success" that met everyone's needs?
posted by ernielundquist at 3:48 PM on May 30, 2017 [7 favorites]


You have to love yourself first before you can love someone else

Ugh, this is one of those irritating pieces of repeated folk wisdom that makes you forego relationships for years or decades because you're still "working on yourself". My advice is to ignore anyone who says this and get into the thick of things whether you're ready or not. Learning how to not be miserable and self-doubting is a lifelong journey. Telling yourself, in addition, that you're not ready for relationships until you fix yourself is not doing you or anyone favors. And when you advise people in this way without thinking, you might be screwing them up more than you realize.
posted by naju at 3:57 PM on May 30, 2017 [71 favorites]


"Believe in yourself and anything is possible, and You have to love yourself first before you can love someone else. “

It doesn't take much thought to realise that these two pop quotes are incorrect, but self-evidently you are going to be happier if you do have self esteem than if you don't.

It wouldn't particularly surprise me if it doesn't necessarily correlate with "success", but that it would with mental well-being seems to be a no-brainer.
posted by walrus at 4:03 PM on May 30, 2017 [4 favorites]


I think it's probably more accurate to say you probably won't be good / healthy in a relationship unless you know how to accept love, to at least some degree, and the whole love yourself thing is a corollary. Which sounds more reasonable. Especially since "love yourself" isn't "you should be happy all the time and have achieved your optimum level of self-fulfillment and success." I think loving yourself just means staying kind to yourself when you're fucking up or having a bad day, not that you've achieved Uplift.
posted by schadenfrau at 4:07 PM on May 30, 2017 [24 favorites]


Incidentally, the single most important thing I have learnt from dealing with depression and social anxiety on a personal basis, and from undergoing training as a psychotherapist, is that the most important step to gaining self esteem is the ability to accept ones vulnerabilities.
posted by walrus at 4:12 PM on May 30, 2017 [21 favorites]


"Self-esteem" is one of those meaningless, relativists things like "good morals". I may think very highly of myself as I set fire to an old-growth forest filled with endangered animals and whatever, children on an excursion or something, but at the end of the day I'm just another gawping fuckhead with a box of matches. I'll never be convinced that somebody is "lovable" or "worthwhile" just because they exist - it has to be about the manner in which they exist.

Teaching kids to love themselves while they're smearing their own slimy shit on the walls and screaming in Target because they can't have a Transformer isn't much of a plan for the future. Teaching kids to love the world into which they've been thrust, and which they are now a part of? That might work a bit better.

Proper grown ups hate everything at all times, especially themselves, so we don't need to put in a whole lot of effort there. We can allow them a few fleeting moments of happiness, like sheets fresh out of the dryer, or that whole-body shiver you get when you empty your bladder after holding it for a long time, but beyond that is pure facile selfishness and false regard.
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:16 PM on May 30, 2017 [22 favorites]


Actually, there's a lot of correctness in the "love yourself" platitude. The people I've known in my lifetime who have had the hardest time finding love are the people who struggled to like themselves enough to believe that they were worthy of another person's time and attention, and I include myself in this group. I think you do actually have to like yourself at least a little bit before you can be in a romantic relationship that is functional and healthy. Without liking yourself, you can definitely have relationships, but... have you ever dated someone who really disliked themselves? It's a special kind of hell, for both parties.
posted by palomar at 4:16 PM on May 30, 2017 [62 favorites]


I had no idea this was such a concerted, orchestrated effort. I just assumed that it was some kind of nebulous trend bubbling up organically somehow, largely based on the fact that there was virtually nothing backing it up.

Some would argue that it was a cultural trend/attitude before it became something to sell lectures and self-help seminars with. They called the seventies the "me" generation after all, referring to young adults at the time; influenced by civil rights, Vietnam, music, drugs, all during America's sudden rise after Hitler. When something oversold needs to go away there is a tendency to trace it back to a minor league influence, for a minimizing effect.
posted by Brian B. at 4:18 PM on May 30, 2017 [2 favorites]


I don't disagree palomar, and yet it's very possible to deeply love another person whilst having little or no self-regard, so the quote as stated is demonstrably incorrect.
posted by walrus at 4:20 PM on May 30, 2017 [1 favorite]


I find it interesting that the article only mentions ethnicity in passing. As a white kid* in a mostly minority (and poor) elementary school, self-esteem was introduced to us through the lens of Jesse Jackson and "I Am Somebody", and even as a kid, there were transparently several of my classmates who believed they were not worth anything at all. Convincing people to have faith in themselves seemed like a pretty good use of our time as a kid, and it still does now that I'm an adult.

*These years seem to me the most productive years of my K-12 education, honestly. The whiter and wealthier my schooling became, the less educational it seemed to me.

posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 4:20 PM on May 30, 2017 [43 favorites]


There's a lot to be said for "positive self-talk." I'm very aware that the little voice most of us hear in our heads comes from our parents.

As a teacher, I always tried to tell my students that they were smart and capable. I also said it was their responsibility to work hard to fulfill their potential.

As a parent of two sons, I tend to think that the overall EQ of our culture (in Canada; I don't know about the States) has evolved since I grew up in the 70's and 80's. My parents, not quite Boomers, were pretty volatile, in part because of their own parents, who had to deal with the Depression and lived through the mass violence of the war (two wars in the case of my grandmother, who escaped the Russian Civil War and then watched the Germans battle their way into her town while sheltering in a bombed-out basement).

So, from my perspective, things have gotten so much better. The late 70's and the early 80's were a pretty rough, violent time in suburbia in Canada, where all the boys and young men looked like Bon Scott from AC/DC, and the soundtrack of the era morphed into Venom and Ride the Lightning. My junior high school could have been something out of the River's Edge.

So that positive self-talk: a good thing.
posted by My Dad at 4:27 PM on May 30, 2017 [12 favorites]


I think you do actually have to like yourself at least a little bit before you can be in a romantic relationship that is functional and healthy

This can end up in a bad place, though, if lack of relationships and inability to find people who like you and are interested in dating you are major reasons for your lack of self-esteem. Then it becomes "you have to like yourself before you can find people who like you and who can successfully convince you that you're a likeable person worthy of affection, and once that happens and you're receptive to it, then your self-esteem will rise and you'll like yourself, but this can only happen if you already like yourself, so the end result is a prerequisite for the journey, so good luck"
posted by naju at 4:29 PM on May 30, 2017 [8 favorites]


I find it interesting that the article only mentions ethnicity in passing. As a white kid* in a mostly minority (and poor) elementary school, self-esteem was introduced to us through the lens of Jesse Jackson and "I Am Somebody", and even as a kid, there were transparently several of my classmates who believed they were not worth anything at all. Convincing people to have faith in themselves seemed like a pretty good use of our time as a kid, and it still does now that I'm an adult.

Yeah, this is an excellent point. A lot of the complaints about self-esteem and "participation trophies" seem to ignore that a great, great many of these kids are born into a world where they are bombarded with messages that they are second-class citizens and utterly disposable. Pushing back against this by teaching kids "don't listen to that garbage; you are a unique and special human being deserving of love and dignity, chase your dreams" is some good ass praxis imo.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 4:30 PM on May 30, 2017 [71 favorites]


so, naju, it sounds like you're saying you think it's healthier for a person's self esteem to be based on other people, and that finding worth in oneself independent of what other people think is not a healthy thing. Am I misunderstanding?
posted by palomar at 4:32 PM on May 30, 2017 [2 favorites]


I think it's actually more effective to praise kids when they do something right than to do it up front, personally, otherwise where's the point in their making the effort?
posted by walrus at 4:33 PM on May 30, 2017 [1 favorite]


Then it becomes "you have to like yourself before you can find people who like you and who can successfully convince you that you're a likeable person worthy of affection, and once that happens and you're receptive to it, then your self-esteem will rise and you'll like yourself, but this can only happen if you already like yourself, so the end result is a prerequisite for the journey, so good luck"

It just seems a little dangerous to ground your self-worth in finding people who can "successfully convince you that you're a likeable person worthy of affection." I don't know that you necessarily need to love yourself to find love--I'm not even sure what it would even mean to love yourself. I do think that without a basic, pre-existing conviction that you are worth affection, it's very easy to fall into abusive and codependent relationships that you can't extricate yourself from because they're the root of any self-worth you have and the source of any positive feelings you have about yourself.
posted by armadillo1224 at 4:34 PM on May 30, 2017 [9 favorites]


I think it's actually more effective to praise kids when they do something right than to do it up front, personally, otherwise where's the point in their making the effort?

True enough, but the oft-bemoaned participation trophy is 1. supposed to be praise for effort; not necessarily achievement, and 2. doesn't erase the existence of nor supercede trophies for achievement, so I always thought this particular gripe was overblown.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 4:36 PM on May 30, 2017 [38 favorites]


Not a gripe, just an observation. Kids always need affection for healthy emotional development, and that should be a given, but praise is more effective as a reward.

I don't disagree that effort in itself is worth rewarding.
posted by walrus at 4:39 PM on May 30, 2017 [4 favorites]


Oh yeah, I didn't think this was a gripe of yours at all. It's a common enough refrain though that bugs me. Maybe because I never received nor have ever seen a participation trophy. Are they really so common? Could be, but I guess my level of participation in anything never warranted acknowledgement.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 4:41 PM on May 30, 2017 [1 favorite]


I mean... here's the thing. I haven't had a romantic relationship in over five years, and as I age the number of people I count as true friends gets smaller. I'll be 40 in a few months, I'm a cishet mouthy smart feminist fat woman not likely to get much smaller or dumber or less mouthy, and the likelihood of me finding love at any point in the future is slim. Realllllll slim. What would you tell me, if I said that my self-esteem was dependent on winning a man's affections and keeping them long-term? Because the people I've known who feel that way about the love of other people also tend to end up in terrible situations -- their need for external validation makes them an easy target for shitty people who use them and toss them aside when they're done, sending them further down into a spiral of low self-worth, making them an even easier target for more abuse, sending them even further down... and so on.
posted by palomar at 4:42 PM on May 30, 2017 [23 favorites]


Whenever I hear about 'self-esteem' I always think of a t-shirt I saw a biker wearing in a magazine. It read "Jesus loves you. Everyone else thinks you're an asshole."
posted by jonmc at 4:44 PM on May 30, 2017 [9 favorites]


A lot of the complaints about self-esteem and "participation trophies" seem to ignore that a great, great many of these kids are born into a world where they are bombarded with messages that they are second-class citizens and utterly disposable. Pushing back against this by teaching kids "don't listen to that garbage; you are a unique and special human being deserving of love and dignity, chase your dreams" is some good ass praxis imo.

I agree with this. Girls, children of color, especially African-American children, and LGBT/gender non-conforming kids are bombarded with these messages. They need building up, especially in these times. Too many children are still treated like garbage. And it's not enough to tell, for instance, poor black and Latinx children that "you are somebody!" when the conditions of their schools and neighborhoods is telling them "you are still nobody." As a culture we are great at talking a great game about Valuing Our Children but our actions don't match our words.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 4:46 PM on May 30, 2017 [25 favorites]



Then it becomes "you have to like yourself before you can find people who like you and who can successfully convince you that you're a likeable person worthy of affection, and once that happens and you're receptive to it, then your self-esteem will rise and you'll like yourself, but this can only happen if you already like yourself, so the end result is a prerequisite for the journey, so good luck"


I'm with naju!!!

First off, observation suggests to me that for many people, being in a situation where they can be liked inspires them to be their best selves. I'm not saying "someone who is a sad sack will be a fantastic person if someone likes them", but someone who is a sad sack can start to build better ways of being if someone likes them. Someone can be inspired to be more trusting, to be kinder, to pay more attention to others' feelings, because they enjoy being liked.

Second, trust is really, really important. Someone who has been kicked around can just flower if they're in a situation where people extend them a little bit of emotional credit, if you will - where people are able to see what's good in them and like them for that. When a person trusts others to be kind, they can relax enough to start becoming themselves instead of being a little curled up ball.

Third, being unloved fucks with you - it produces physical stress and mental stress, and that distorts your personality even more.

I think because I come from an anarchist background, I have spent a lot of time in spaces where people who have really been hurt by life come to get a little bit of tolerance and affection. It's not always "yay, everyone is so great!" but I've personally seen a number of people over the years be transformed because they are held by a community. People progress from being able to make friends, to being able to have relationships, to being stable and healthy in friendships and relationships.

It really all does start with trust. A lot of people have been kicked around so much that they don't expect anyone to see anything good in them.

How do I know this? Partly through being a kicked around person in youth, partly through being able to see the charm and beauty in sad weirdos, and as a result having been around for some people really flowering into happiness because they started to get a little place in the world.

I think there's this strain in "advice culture" which is what naju is talking about, that goes sort of like this: "If everyone is perfectly attentive to never overstepping boundaries and maintaining their individuality carefully, we will all have perfect, untroubled, exactly equal relationships conducted along lines of perfect propriety. This is what everyone wants, and if you fail to cultivate your personality into the correct shape, you can't expect anyone to like you, also you are lazy".

Boundaries are good, individuality is good, but actual relationships are messy and real "boundaries" are seldom what the advice books advise.

Also, I think for most of us we live in the process of becoming, and we don't become just by sitting in our rooms thinking about what our boundaries should be and whether we overstepped by asking if our sister in law could give us a ride to the airport, she said yes but it wasn't an enthusiastic yes, so was it rude even to ask, etc etc. We become through relating to others, often imperfectly.

You can be a kind person without loving yourself very much. You can be a kind person who is flawed. You can be a great friend who has some failings. You can be a work in progress.

I will even go so far as to say that it's okay to let others convince you that you're worthy of being liked. That's not some failure of bourgeois self regulation - or if it is, a fig for bourgeois self regulation!
posted by Frowner at 4:54 PM on May 30, 2017 [59 favorites]


so, naju, it sounds like you're saying you think it's healthier for a person's self esteem to be based on other people, and that finding worth in oneself independent of what other people think is not a healthy thing. Am I misunderstanding?

I'm not saying that. But I think waiting around to find worth in yourself independent of what other people think is something that may or may not happen easily, and is a years-long process, and while you're working on that, it might be a good idea to date at the same time, and maybe someone else reassuring you that you're worthwhile couldn't hurt, as long as you're not basing everything on that, but rather using it as a stepping stone toward finding your self-worth.
posted by naju at 4:57 PM on May 30, 2017 [5 favorites]


Or what Frowner said in a much much better way than me!
posted by naju at 5:02 PM on May 30, 2017


Having just seen the marathon, I can definitely blame Mr. Rogers.
posted by Melismata at 5:13 PM on May 30, 2017


Maybe some of you guys had better systems at your schools, but the self esteem curricula at my son's schools was always an isolated thing. They'd give the kids these really intrusive tests to take, have some group exercises, and then go right back to treating kids like shit. The school he went to with the most pervasive self esteem initiative was the school where the principal publicly accused a bunch of little kids of being gang members and where the bullying culture came from the top down.

But even if the programs had been better designed and more sincere, there's no evidence that they're useful on such a huge scale. Not having self esteem classes doesn't mean you have to treat kids like shit, or that you can't have more inclusive classrooms, and it doesn't mean that the kids who need additional counseling can't get it.

Schools provide a valuable service when they intervene for kids having problems, but that shouldn't translate to conducting one size fits all group indoctrinations into a poorly researched pop psychology trend.
posted by ernielundquist at 5:26 PM on May 30, 2017 [6 favorites]


Congratulations!

You are a participant in:
Thread #167282

posted by Nanukthedog at 5:30 PM on May 30, 2017 [26 favorites]


People need to be careful and not overcorrect on this one, like we usually do.

It's not that healthy self-esteem isn't exactly as important as advertised. It is.

It's just that somewhere along the way, the public misread the sense of the word "healthy" and took it to mean "abundant" or "plentiful," in the sense we mean when we say somebody has a "healthy appetite," say.

But in the context of self esteem, the dose makes the poison. A realistic, fair and self aware amount of self esteem is absolutely crucial for psychological health and well-being. But too much self esteem leads to narcissism. So the balance matters most, it's not just a simple "more is better" or "less is better" formula.

The right amount is healthy, any more or less starts to cause problems.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:39 PM on May 30, 2017 [13 favorites]


When I started elementary school in the mid-1970s, we had Free to Be You and Me, and I think that was OK; I mean, I wasn't getting that message at home or church at all, where there were exacting (and in my opinion even then, arbitrary) standards I had to meet to be considered worthwhile. At least there was someone somewhere besides Mister Rogers on TV telling me that I had implicit worth as a human being. So thanks also to Marlo Thomas.

Participation trophies, though? We didn't get those. 1st, 2nd, 3rd—and that was it. No one wanted that white ribbon/tiny trophy for anything at any my grade schools, let me tell you.
posted by droplet at 5:42 PM on May 30, 2017 [4 favorites]


I can guarantee you that an abundant sense of self-esteem is what took Barack Obama from a backwater like Hawaii to Harvard and then the White House. You gotta believe. The missing part, as I mentioned up-thread, is telling kids that they have to *work*. But you also gotta believe in yourself.
posted by My Dad at 5:44 PM on May 30, 2017 [3 favorites]


If you grew up, or raised a child, during the 1980s or 1990s, you almost certainly remember this sort of material, as well as goofy classroom exercises focusing on how special each individual child was.

I grew up in the 1980s, and I don't remember anything like this. I remember lots of kids feeling like they sucked and being told by their teachers and peers that they sucked. School for my kids seems a little better than this now, and the "emotional skills" training they get, a very minor part of their curriculum, seems basically sound to me. In conclusion, there is no evidence participation trophies are bad for you and The Little Engine That Could came out in 1930 so whatever.
posted by escabeche at 5:58 PM on May 30, 2017 [12 favorites]




Yeah, I never got a trophy at all until I was 35 and won a trivia contest. Certificates for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and a maybe few honorable mentions at competitions; a varsity letter in high school; magna cum lauda in college; but WHO WAS HANDING OUT ALL THESE TROPHIES? I remember being in T-ball and hearing parents bitch about how all the kids got trophies now not like when we Boomers were growing up and you had to WORK to win anything BUT THERE WERE NO TROPHIES. Or certificates. Just team pictures.

For someone who supposedly grew up in the participation-trophy generation, I have VERY FEW physical accolades from my school years. A handful of certificates for actually winning competitions, that's it.

---

I kind-of liked my junior high self-esteem curriculum, not because it seemed crazy-relevant to my life or people actually implemented it, but because I find other people's inner lives intensely fascinating and that was like the only time you get to talk about it in junior high. It was like a novel! (Or Ask!) I don't think it improved my self-esteem, though.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:03 PM on May 30, 2017 [5 favorites]


My undergraduate honours thesis in psychology 20+ years ago was doing several different forms of multivariate analysis of about 7000 participants worth of self-esteem inventory data. It included all of the major inventories used at the time with responses from students, prisoners, corporate employees and institutionalized mental patients.

Not one of the inventories had the psychometric properties the creators claimed they should.


Yeah, reading the article this was something that stood out to me—the author seems to skip the step in the syllogisms of asking whether all of the various programs described actually increased self-esteem. If they didn't actually increase self-esteem in their subjects, it doesn't seem you can count the failure or silliness of those programs as evidence against the importance or effectiveness of better self-esteem.

I was also strongly reminded of the “Safety Movement” which arose a bit more than a hundred years ago, and initially seemed to mostly focus on putting up posters simply telling workers to “Be Safe!” and having managers give lectures on the importance of safety. It took them a while to figure out and operationalize the fact that, for example, you can't just exhort people to “Be careful not to set fires!” but instead you actually have to make sure that buildings and furniture are constructed from non-flammable material and constructed with fire escapes and clearly labeled exits, you need to have fire extinguishers handy, and to plan and conduct fire drills.

It was an international movement too—I think there was a post on MeFi years ago linking to a collection of Soviet work-safety posters, which tended towards including lurid illustrations of people being mangled in machines.

So, I wouldn't be surprised if we're still in the era of “Well, we put the safety posters up! Check ‘create a safe workplace’ off the list!” as far as being attentive to self-esteem goes.

Though, since there's actually lots of money to be saved in genuinely ensuring safety, but no similar incentive for genuinely ensuring self-esteem articulated to realistic expectations of oneself, we may never get any further.
posted by XMLicious at 6:12 PM on May 30, 2017 [11 favorites]


This, btw, is an empathy curriculum with some actual scientific backing that's really interesting, begun in Canada, imported to the US, and now spreading to other countries: Roots of Empathy. Every three weeks a parent and infant pair visits the classroom of kids in K-8, and the parent and a trained facilitator talk a little about the baby's development and the kids observe what the baby is doing and talk about it and what they think the baby is feeling and so on. The baby is the "teacher." The same parent/baby pair comes all year. Students who participate have observable reductions in interpersonal aggression with peers.

I badly wanted to bring it to my district when I was on the school board -- everyone just raves about it -- but they weren't bringing it to my area at the time.

We did have an anti-bullying curriculum, of which self-esteem was one piece, but it was a scientifically validated curriculum so it focused more on things that can actually reduce bullying rather than just that having more self-esteem will mean you don't bully people. (False! Children with lots of self-esteem are often bullies because they feel so great about themselves!) The other place self-esteem curriculum comes up now is in (scientifically-validated) sex ed curricula, which place a lot of emphasis on self-respect, respect for partners, etc. Our district didn't have a "self-esteem" curriculum anymore, but emphasis across the grades about social-emotional learning, anti-bullying programs, and sex ed from K through 12. I don't know any local schools that do the 80s/90s style pure self-esteem curriculum anymore (although I just may not have heard about it).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:21 PM on May 30, 2017 [19 favorites]


Also, I think for most of us we live in the process of becoming, and we don't become just by sitting in our rooms thinking about what our boundaries should be and whether we overstepped by asking if our sister in law could give us a ride to the airport, she said yes but it wasn't an enthusiastic yes, so was it rude even to ask, etc etc. We become through relating to others, often imperfectly.

We become through being able to check in with ourselves, too. When we teach kids that good self-esteem is sufficient, we risk raising a certain dangerous type of person who's out there, relating to others, but often badly and selfishly and with seemingly no capacity for introspection. It's a special kind of hell, dealing with someone who received that message as a child of the 90s but never really grew into an adult with the ability and empathy necessary to get the nuance and responsibility of being a work in progress. Those people need to go chill out in their proverbial rooms for a bit and think about how they interact with other people's boundaries.
posted by blerghamot at 6:26 PM on May 30, 2017 [1 favorite]


Telling yourself, in addition, that you're not ready for relationships until you fix yourself is not doing you or anyone favors.

Well you just eliminated most of the relationship advice on the Green.
posted by waving at 6:32 PM on May 30, 2017 [6 favorites]


As a kid growing up in the Seventies in Australia, self-esteem was always one of those weird ideas like patriotism that Americans always seemed to be banging on about; "self-esteem" and "being completely up yourself" looked like pretty much identical concepts to me, and the idea that one should properly esteem oneself for no better reason than merely existing always struck me as fundamentally unsound.

The older I get, the luckier I feel to have been raised in an environment consisting mostly of people whose self esteem was healthy enough to be essentially invisible.
posted by flabdablet at 6:38 PM on May 30, 2017 [3 favorites]


It's rare that an animated movie hits the top of the box office chart - and they have an outsize influence on children growing up, I know kids who have watched Frozen 20 times - but you can kind of see the difference already.

Lion King 1994 = You can't run away from your responsibilities, you have to be the man (lion) you were meant to be.

Shrek 2004 = Be yourself (trying to be someone you're not ends in disaster)
posted by xdvesper at 6:40 PM on May 30, 2017 [1 favorite]


I teach an online children's literature class, and it's kind of astonishing how many of my students want to flatten the message of every work they study down to "you should have self-confidence and believe in yourself and then you will succeed."

I don't have a problem with the first half of that, even, though I think it's a bad and very ahistorical reading of most fairy tales and Victorian children's books. (Even with a book like The Secret Garden, which is in part about gaining a sense of yourself as a worthy and likable person, it doesn't come from an empty 'believing in yourself' but from building self-efficacy based on working hard and building relationships).

But - and Barbara Ehrenreich talks about this in Brightsided - when you say that success is the necessary outgrowth of believing in yourself, then every person who fails has to blame themselves for their failure. It's a message of "You MUST perform self-confidence to the correct degree regardless of your personal suffering or life circumstances, or you will fail and it will be your own fault."
posted by Jeanne at 6:42 PM on May 30, 2017 [27 favorites]


It's rare that an animated movie hits the top of the box office chart - and they have an outsize influence on children growing up, I know kids who have watched Frozen 20 times - but you can kind of see the difference already.

Lion King 1994 = You can't run away from your responsibilities, you have to be the man (lion) you were meant to be.

Shrek 2004 = Be yourself (trying to be someone you're not ends in disaster)


"Be yourself" was a really popular motto in the 70s, too.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 6:43 PM on May 30, 2017


The new "self-esteem" is "resilience". In twenty years, I'm sure we'll find that resilience, too, is not something that we were able to produce on a mass scale via an educational fad.
posted by clawsoon at 6:51 PM on May 30, 2017 [6 favorites]


just thought i would add to The Great Participation Trophy Debate. i myself did receive my fair share of participation trophies as a kid. i was a total runt , and usually last , or not far therefrom , in whatevr the competition may have been. sometime in fourth grade i believe it was , i realized what exactly they were : fake prizes for losers , mementos of loss , humilating really. only really for very young children who only understand that others are getting something they are not , after which time they can only really make a kid feel worse
posted by LeviQayin at 6:51 PM on May 30, 2017 [3 favorites]


Maybe the "love yourself" message could be something like:
  1. Admit to yourself you're good at something, or somethings. Everyone is. Let that something be important to you. Being an expert at keeping the bathroom clean doesn't get you a $1,000,000 bonus, but so what? A clean bathroom is a nice thing. Frankly, I'd rather hang out with the person whose bathroom is spotless.*
  2. Give yourself credit for trying, and use that credit to keep trying. I say shitty stuff all the time because I am a white dude raised in the US, it was baked into me. But I try to not be a mansplainer or whitesplainer and maybe pause for a few moments before the baked-in "common sense" reaction runs out of my mouth and actually, you know, think. Doesn't happen always, but it happens more than it did, and hopefully will happen more and more. I feel good about that (which is like just 101 being a decent person, but 101 means at least you're in school).
  3. There is also no shame in giving up some things, especially those things done just for yourself, like learning an instrument or going on some huge exotic trip that would ruin you financially to go. It's ok to be disappointed, but you're not a bad person because you could never trek through the Andes for a summer like you hoped to.
  4. It's hard, but don't let strangers or toxic people ruin steal worth from you. I think that involves being realistic about how others are going to view you, and not expect everyone to clap you on the back even if you're doing good stuff, or doing stuff you find important well.
  5. And then temper that with a bit of humility to keep from becoming a Trumpkin. Humility doesn't mean thinking you're shit at something, it means being open to being wrong, which is actually kind of cool when you recognize that's what it is, because then you have a chance to be right in the future.
* $1,000,000 bonus? Not me. Sparkling bathroom? Not me unless you catch me on a particular day probably not repeated more often than the lunar cycle, maybe even seasonally. I'm kind to animals, though.**
** Earwigs are not animals, they are invaders from planet Grody.

posted by maxwelton at 6:52 PM on May 30, 2017 [12 favorites]


I always wonder whether the participation trophies are really for the kids or for their parents. Like a lot of that sort of generational finger-pointing, the hand-wringing about the trophies feels like it is more about the generation who felt like they had to give them out, not the generation who got them.
posted by jimw at 6:53 PM on May 30, 2017 [18 favorites]


Telling yourself, in addition, that you're not ready for relationships until you fix yourself is not doing you or anyone favors.

Meh, ymmv. With certain forms of abandonment PTSD, you absolutely don't want to start new intimate relationships too quickly or while you're still recovering from grief or in crisis because you'll have a tendency to be attracted to abusers/people who unwittingly have a bad influence due to ignorance about your condition, etc. Or you might become codependent.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:55 PM on May 30, 2017 [7 favorites]


Y'know, crime did drop dramatically as the self-esteem generation reached peak crime-doing age. I'm not saying it was self-esteem, but...
posted by clawsoon at 6:56 PM on May 30, 2017 [3 favorites]


This is my mantra:

Everyone is terrible.

Your parents were terrible, your teachers were terrible, and your kids will be terrible. This sentence is terrible.

The universe is a giant, terrible, cosmic game of chance and the house always wins. Your self-esteem is useless, and so's your nihilism.

Nothing you do will make a lick of difference to anybody worth talking about. You are an impostor. Your life is a huge lie waiting to be exposed by everyone around you.

It's alright to cry, but in the end it won't matter. The crumbling facade that is your pathetic life will continue in spite of your feelings. Rage against the dying of the light, if you must, but the light will still die and you will still be left to grope your way in the darkness.

Alone.

Until you die.

Most importantly, remember that you are not special. All of these awful, terrible, no-good things are true for you just the same as the are true for every single human that ever dared to exist. They are just like you, all terrible.

Now, close your eyes and imagine that you are Sisyphus, pushing that terrible, terrible rock up the hill.

And now, imagine that you are happy.
posted by Doleful Creature at 6:57 PM on May 30, 2017 [29 favorites]


On participation trophies, if they even exist: They should be like shirts for a 5K or half-marathon. Everyone gets one, from the person who wins to the person who drops out after a short bit. I think it's OK to acknowledge that you went out for the soccer team even if all you did was own goals.

Evidence you tried is a good thing. I do think it's a disservice when such a marker is actually awarded as a trophy, but I would be willing to bet that the "I did this thing" shirt or whatever is all the vast majority would ever want. And that it's actually a great thing to do for anything which isn't something everyone does or is expected to do.
posted by maxwelton at 6:58 PM on May 30, 2017 [8 favorites]


i realized what exactly they were : fake prizes for losers , mementos of loss , humilating really. only really for very young children who only understand that others are getting something they are not , after which time they can only really make a kid feel worse

Yup. I thinik there was a Doonesbury comic where Jeffrey got a trophy for "most improved trier." I suppose it's a good thing to acknowledge that you tried to do a thing that we forced on you anyway, because one-size-fits-all compulsory education works just so well for so many people.
posted by Melismata at 7:12 PM on May 30, 2017


On preview: also what maxwelton said.
posted by Melismata at 7:13 PM on May 30, 2017


I had no idea this was such a concerted, orchestrated effort. I just assumed that it was some kind of nebulous trend bubbling up organically somehow, largely based on the fact that there was virtually nothing backing it up.

Some would argue that it was a cultural trend/attitude before it became something to sell lectures and self-help seminars with. They called the seventies the "me" generation after all, referring to young adults at the time; influenced by civil rights, Vietnam, music, drugs, all during America's sudden rise after Hitler. When something oversold needs to go away there is a tendency to trace it back to a minor league influence, for a minimizing effect.
posted by Brian B. at 7:18 PM on May 30 [1 favorite +] [!] [quote]


I would disagree here. For me the 70s was the US generation. We were transitioning from the 60s. Which a lot of us just missed, to the 80s. The true We/US generation. Everyone I knew in the 70s were holding on to the concept that we could change the world. We we had a foot solidly in the culture of the 60s, without having actually been active in the 60s. And there was a kinda little sea change then. The younger generation, maybe only by a few years, felt that the last two decades had failed. Failed in a big way. Then there was punk. Punk in the late 70s was a complete and total rejection of the things that many of us held dear.

Punk was a fuck you to the 60s/70s love generation. It was fuck your love. Fuck your ideals. And fuck everything else. You didn't fix anything and we don't care. The punk ideal was honestly a surprise to me. And probably not just me. :)

I ramble. Sorry.

The true ME generation happened in the mid 80s. The cocaine and slam dance era. The evolution of the anti-punk era became the yuppie era. The TRUE ME generation. Sorry to go off.
posted by Splunge at 7:14 PM on May 30, 2017 [5 favorites]


As I think of it, I did in fact receive something like a participation award many years ago: at this YMCA day camp, when I was 7, where every day I would show up and be too terrified to swim, too physically weak to do most of the exercises, and too socially stunted to make any friends. By the end of the summer I felt like an abject failure. But then at the closing ceremony, I was awarded a blue ribbon that just said "first place". No specification as to first place for what, and I knew somewhere that this was given to me out of pity, but I really treasured that ribbon. Everyone was aware of how much I failed as a camper, and it was something I was deeply embarrassed about, but that ribbon as a gesture really touched me. I kept it through high school as a cherished memento.

Amazingly, I did not enter adulthood expecting the world to hand me everything just for wanting it and to shower me with praise just for showing up, fancy that.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 7:18 PM on May 30, 2017 [32 favorites]


I have fairly vivid memories of the participation trophies that everyone got at the end of the soccer season from ages 5 to, oh, 11 or so, I think. It was more of "Hooray! You stuck out the season!" trophy, and they were handed out after the last game and the team all celebrated together that we, you know, were a team, and even if we sucked we had fun. I kept them all on a shelf in my room, lined up in the order I got them, and they were a nice record of an accomplishment---not of wins, but just of the work I put into it over the years. I'm not entirely sure what the point of my story is here; maybe just that because it's a "participation trophy" that everyone gets doesn't mean it's not meaningful.

Also I ended up being decent at soccer, so maybe the trophies worked.
posted by Meow Face at 7:57 PM on May 30, 2017 [17 favorites]


My first recollection of this movement was the Desiderata poster I got in Jr. High.
posted by DaddyNewt at 8:05 PM on May 30, 2017


I got a fourth-place ribbon on my relay race team in grade school. Out of four teams. I treasured it, because I knew damn well I was never going to win an award in a sport again. There was no harm in that. If anything, it was being genuinely good at school that did harm, because I had to learn to study a lot later in life than most people.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:07 PM on May 30, 2017 [3 favorites]


I'm still mad though about the time I went to Girl Scout camp and they gave everybody certificates and they gave me one for "Most Inquisitive." I knew it meant that I asked a lot of questions and that they couldn't find anything else to like about me. OK I'm done talking about grade school tonight thanks
posted by Countess Elena at 8:08 PM on May 30, 2017 [2 favorites]


Umm, I blame Skeletor?
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 8:08 PM on May 30, 2017


as a multiply marginalized abuse survivor I tend of think of self-esteem and self-love for the vast, vast majority of people as something you can't really......overshoot on

trophies for everyone
posted by colorblock sock at 8:09 PM on May 30, 2017 [17 favorites]


This brought to mind a metafilter comment I enjoyed very much, on life hacks and believing in yourself.
posted by Kabanos at 8:19 PM on May 30, 2017 [2 favorites]


Congratulations!

You are a participant in:
Thread #167282


it is everything I hoped and dreamed it might be
posted by Sebmojo at 8:32 PM on May 30, 2017 [3 favorites]


I don't remember taking any classes about self-esteem, but it was just part of the background noise of growing up in the 90s and the 00s. When I was a kid, I had only an abstract idea of what self-esteem meant. It was only once I got older that I realized how much of it I'd lost over the years.
posted by airmail at 8:36 PM on May 30, 2017


It's always a little odd reading articles like these, because the historical background and context is almost always important and also overlooked.

The "self esteem" craze grew out of the "positive thinking" craze, and there's a fun history that connects our current president to the scammy history of positive thinking — the distance between the self-esteem craze and The Secret is pretty small.

And that's all got roots going back through a lot of theological roots (hence the involvement of fundie Christians in the initial California self-esteem committee).

But I guess it'd be a bummer to have an article that was like EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU KNOW ABOUT FREE WILL IS WRONG DESPAIR ALL HOPE.
posted by klangklangston at 9:15 PM on May 30, 2017 [7 favorites]


I also literally got the soccer participation trophies of lore despite spending most soccer games wandering around examining grass with great interest. But I've always found the narrative folks try to build around those supremely dishonest because - as a couple people have already suggested - of course we all fucking knew it meant "hey, at least you showed up." I was right there, scoring zero goals on a team that won zero games!
posted by atoxyl at 9:27 PM on May 30, 2017 [5 favorites]


Let us not forget the everyone gets a trophy, not just the winner, mentality.

My wife is a runner, and I am a HAM operator - I get to volunteer for a lot of fucking aid stations at races.

I recall one marathon where the last woman to cross the finish line, minutes if not seconds ahead of the cutoff, had done so between chemo treatments. She told me between fits of dry heaves how treatment had taken so much and it wasn't going to take this. I doubt the winner of this inconsequential footrace in Nowhere, Somestate regards his completion prize they way she does. Nor should he. Hell, she was the reason I was there - Mr. 4minutemile never stops at aid stations anyway. I wish I had her ovaries.

You never can see the shit that someone is dragging across the finish line with them. Are you fit to judge them ? I surely am not - the Stick of Supercilious Superiority doesn't seem to fit up my ass.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:37 PM on May 30, 2017 [50 favorites]


The framework, which applies to teachers as well as students, is based on developing a sense of security, identity, belonging, purpose and personal competence.
As a child of Asian immigrants who was born in the 80s, I don't know if I really recall any of the "self-esteem" boosters really holding. Everything was spoon-fed: security, identity, and belonging existed only as long as you kowtowed to the housecat mother*, your purpose was only to get into Harvard or Yale, and there was no personal competence because the other Asian kid in the class got a higher score on the last test than you, where you failed with a miserable, paltry, mediocre 102%.

That aside, a lot of how self-esteem seems to get boosted is just the rosiness, you can do anything!!! type, not the rubric laid out in the quote I pulled. I don't think that the more down-to-earth goals of the framework are bad--indeed, I think they're critical to having a rather complete view of oneself, since, for example, having a sense of personal competence would also (I'd hope) let one know where their competences weren't. Instead, the rosy, delusional "positive mental attitude" type answers took over, or, as is said later:
Or: Of course oversimplified stories about human nature are irresistible.
*tiger moms just kill you. it sucks, but you can survive that. housecat moms are sweet to everyone and then will shit on your dreams, vomit in your soul, and claw you until you bleed because you did one thing they didn't like, and you'll think you deserve it because you should have known.
posted by anem0ne at 9:52 PM on May 30, 2017 [7 favorites]


Interesting article, more detail than I expected. Makes a good point at the end that the "grit" stuff seems to be the modern equivalent of the self-esteem movement. It's more palatable to modern tastes since it sounds tougher, but it's similarly based on weak evidence and correlations. Kids with high self-esteem do better, kids who pass the Marshmallow Test do better, but those are the kids with a host of other advantages.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:53 PM on May 30, 2017


It's like Bobby McFerrin and Huey Lewis driving to an AA meeting with Nietzsche in the back whispering: "this too shall pass".
posted by clavdivs at 9:56 PM on May 30, 2017 [7 favorites]


(Even with a book like The Secret Garden, which is in part about gaining a sense of yourself as a worthy and likable person, it doesn't come from an empty 'believing in yourself' but from building self-efficacy based on working hard and building relationships).

see, and I've always thought of >The Secret Garden as a book about two horrible children, who are horrible because no one has loved them and they've never loved anyone else, who teach each other how to not be horrible and how to love and be loved.
posted by nonasuch at 10:10 PM on May 30, 2017 [9 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that the vast majority of things people point to and and blame on the self-esteem movement are just a combination of Kids These Days and availability bias.
posted by straight at 10:12 PM on May 30, 2017 [12 favorites]


As somebody who runs a lot of competitions for kids, the participation trophy is something I think about a lot. (Except not actual trophies, because who has the budget for that these days?)

Last November I ran the NaNoWriMo Young Writers' Programme for a bunch of 7-11 year olds. The goal for the adult programme is a flat 50,000 words, but the YWP involves taking a self-test to see what you're capable of writing in the time constraints and attempting to beat that goal.

So at the end, I have all these different groups of kids who have participated with varying degrees of success and the question of how best to acknowledge them in front of their peers.

The kid who got the highest wordcount.
The kid who beat their goal by the greatest amount.
The kids who came close to beating their goal.
The kids who started and then gave up.
The kid who straight up plagiarised.

And of course since this was an enrichment activity, all of these kids are set against the largest group: kids who never signed up in the first place. So as well as the issue of rewarding objective achievement vs effort, you also want to acknowledge courage, because regardless of whether they flunked out early, all these kids were willing to take on a personal challenge that their peers were not.

I went with a generalised shoutout to everyone who signed up, participation certificates to everybody who turned work in but didn't meet their goals, winner certificates for those who did meet their goals, a prize for the child who wrote the most words (11,000!) and a higher value prize for the child who most conclusively beat their own target. No public acknowledgment for the plagiarist.

Could I have chosen differently? Sure. None of the different things I could have rewarded are bad goals. Ultimately, I want these kids to all be courageous and hardworking and successful. Rewarding success is important because it models for them how the adult world works and rewarding effort encourages the development of a personal skillset that will allow them to flourish on their path to the adult world, but rewarding courage is about rewarding the kid as they are right now. An acknowledgment that there was a challenge before you, that you could have backed away and that you didn't.

The challenge for educators is communicating that to the kids. Participation trophies are counter-productive if they feel perfunctory. It needs to be based in genuine recognition and respect, even if the only person the kid is beating is their alternate-timeline self who faked diarrhoea to get out of sports day altogether.
posted by the latin mouse at 11:05 PM on May 30, 2017 [7 favorites]


Grit/Resilicence always worries me that it functions to cover up wrongs, as a "don't complain, learn to put up with the painful, the degrading, the unacceptable".
posted by Peter B-S at 11:28 PM on May 30, 2017 [8 favorites]


But I guess it'd be a bummer to have an article that was like EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU KNOW ABOUT FREE WILL IS WRONG COMES FROM LUTHER AND HE ARGUES BOTH SIDES DEPENDING ON WHAT YOURE READING, DESPAIR ALL HOPE AND DO NOT AGREE TO AN ESSAY ASSIGNMENT ON LUTHER AND FREE WILL, IT'S A TRICK.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:30 PM on May 30, 2017 [7 favorites]


Has anyone shown that telling kids they're loveable and capable, and that their whole worth is not contingent on any one thing, is bad for their mental health in later life? The article seems to be focused on debunking big claims about the social, economic and political benefits of pouring money into self-esteem; making small changes to individual well-being can't, unsurprisingly, fix problems that are systemic and structural in character. But then it also occasionally slides in the suggestion that positive self-talk and positive beliefs about yourself are actually either irrelevant to your individual mental health and functioning or positively detrimental. I'd have liked to see the evidence for that, and how it squares with research on the efficacy of CBT in treating depression and anxiety.
posted by Aravis76 at 11:37 PM on May 30, 2017 [13 favorites]


So that positive self-talk: a good thing.

And very often is a core element to survival training. You have to have the 'will' to live, the 'will' to continue. That is ALL kinds of positive self-talk.

That and being willing to eat bugs. Not sure if positive self-talk and bug eating are connected.
posted by rough ashlar at 2:49 AM on May 31, 2017 [1 favorite]


Arrrrrgh participation trophies. Listen, I'm a millenial, I was there, my childhood bedroom had a whole row of participation trophies, one for every year I played soccer (badly). Two things:

1. It was our boomer parents insisting that everybody gets a trophy, not us.

2. More importantly, precisely nobody was fooled by participation trophies into thinking that everyone was equally good at the thing. As I said, I had like 8 soccer trophies, and never for a second did I, or anyone else, take that to mean that I was anything other than a shitty soccer player.
posted by Ragged Richard at 3:52 AM on May 31, 2017 [16 favorites]


A lot of this infused the 1980s and 90s, yes. I remember it particularly because both of my grandfathers had disabilities: my maternal grandfather was quadriplegic (some large-muscle movement in his arms remained) and my paternal grandfather was mostly deaf; his hearing aids worked so long as we (and he) shouted.

It's impossible to believe that sort of thing when you help wheel one grandfather in a wheelchair and TALK LIKE IN ALL CAPS ABOUT YOUR BEST FRIENDS SO YOUR OTHER GRANDPA CAN HEAR YOU. Believe in yourself and anything is possible? Won't undo the damage done by my great-grandfather boxing my paternal grandfather's childhood ears. Anything is possible? Why is "anything" assumed to be positive when some dude in a 4x4 running a red light took away your other grandfather's ability to walk?

"Anything" gets into pretty messy moral territory. We're seeing a lot of that messiness play out now, as others have mentioned in-thread. "I believe it so I can say it and act on it."

On a lighter note. I re-took up running last year and have done three races so far. In the first they didn't give out participation medals because they wanted to "mix things up." I got a pair of shoelaces with the race name on them. I kept those shoelaces! They're tacked to my corkboard. Second race was in December and we got a tree-shaped medal with a glow-in-the-dark snowflake. AWESOME. Third race we got a headband. Meh. There's a fourth race coming up at Versailles and I'm really hoping we get a medal because they're so much fun. I don't care that I came in 187th! I ran The Thing! With other people who ran The Thing! The medals are a nice reminder of that. I mean it's possible to boil it down too, even "merit" medals are arbitrary in that it's not an infallible deity handing them out based on the achievements of all known humanity. Honestly I wish more recognition were given to that sort of thing too. The mythology of our times (at least in the Western world) genuinely seems to be "superiority". Ain't no such thing except as exists in human-made systems. To be a bit silly, one could easily point out that the Sun is superior to Earth in many ways, and yet we're here. I hope the Sun doesn't soon think its free speech rights are more important than the measly hunks of rock orbiting it.
posted by fraula at 5:50 AM on May 31, 2017 [9 favorites]


I think the big problem is not “teaching children that they have worth as individuals”, which is actually a laudable goal that can help them if done well. I think the problem is actually many problems, including:

-schools teaching awkward self-esteem units by teachers who think it is stupid, in schools where bullying and abuse of authority is rampant
-corporations borrowing the language of self-esteem to promote the belief that “self-actualization leads to profit!!!!!”, aka the Secular Prosperity Gospel
-people who think that telling children to love themselves will ever mean anything if the process of doing that is not modeled effectively and over a long period in multiple communities
-telling children to love themselves but humiliating them when they attempt to do so (“you’re doing THAT again? grow up!” or “stop being so mean to Johnny when he grabs you on the playground, he just LIKES you!”)
-the same people telling children to love themselves being the ones who model self-loathing for decades (really undercuts the message)
-children growing up in authoritarian environments where the very notion of a child having a self and the ability to control the experiences of that self is absurd (religious environments, abusive homes, dysfunctional schools)
-Forgetting that boomer parents were the ones obsessed with giving their kids participation trophies, and yelling at other boomer parents about lack of participation trophies, and then blaming the kids who were given the trophies regardless of their feelings about them

I think a lot of it boils down to words vs actions. I guess I heard various messages about loving myself, growing up. But when it came to the way adults in my life treated me, and each other, my general impression was that they didn’t REALLY want you to love yourself, because doing so would be kind of dangerous, and it could get you in a lot of trouble. I would say that most of my attempts to speak up for myself and believe in myself at a young age tended to make things worse, because trying to have a voice and push back against cruelty actually makes people in power mad.

“Have self-esteem” is a nice vague way to make yourself feel like you are helping kids. But when kids try to live that out, the same people preaching that mandate are rarely pleased with the results.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:12 AM on May 31, 2017 [15 favorites]


I tend to think that the real boost to self-esteem isn't in recognition of participation, but simply feeling that you belong. I was thinking about the one time that I got the equivalent of a participation award that I can remember. It was the summer after eighth grade, and I didn't have a lot of friends because I'd moved to town the previous autumn. My aunt/legal guardian took me to the local community center to see if there was anything for me to do, and there's some guy there who runs the CC's drama program, and during the summer he turned the drama kids into a clown troupe that would go around to various other summer programs and clown for the younger kids. He came off as the standard-issue slightly gruff but caring mentor, so my aunt signed me up, and I did clown stuff off and on during the summer; I'm not a natural clown, but I was willing to give it a try, and had a modest amount of fun.

So, at the end of the summer, they had a little party, and I volunteered to do the invitations for it, even though there were only 6-8 or so regular participants. Everyone got an award that had something to do with them as a person, something cute about Most Whatever, and then it finally came to my turn, and I got an award for... best invitations to the party. I'd spent several weeks with them, and that's all they could think of. Not even "New Kid in Town" or "The Quiet One." The erstwhile mentor who'd promised to take care of the kid who didn't have any friends? Didn't bother to get to know me. Just another clique of drama kids, really.

I think that I would have felt pretty justified in withdrawing back to my room, getting a lot of use out of my library card and ninjaing through high school, but that's not the way it turned out. It wasn't even my last failed attempt at joining a group--I tried a local Boy Scout troop, but they turned out to be mostly assholes--but I had more luck with orchestra, where I got a letter for being in it for four years. I guess you could say that that was a participation trophy of sorts, since I was never in serious contention for first chair of my section, but I didn't care. Because I belonged, I was recognized and accepted as part of the group. And I eventually found my own group of friends, too. But I had to go through that period of what was effectively a sort of internal exile to get there, I had to endure that. Whether or not you want to call that "persistence" or "grit" (which I will always associate with that old newspaper that you could get big prizes for selling) or whatever, it's useful and complimentary to belonging, for those periods of time when either you don't belong or that alone isn't enough to sustain you. Trophies for showing up? Keep 'em.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:34 AM on May 31, 2017 [1 favorite]


Self esteem is such an odd thing to decry and I'm giving the side eyes to anyone who wants to teach kids "grit" instead. It is such a subtle but powerful transition from "you deserve the life you want" to "you should be happy with yourself" to "you should be happy no matter what happens to you" to "you deserve whatever happens to you".

Teaching kids unconditional self esteem might instill a sense of "entitlement", but at the same time that entitlement leads to revolutionary thought. Why yes I do believe I deserve healthcare. Come to think of it I think I deserve equal treatment under the law. Solely teaching achievement-based resilience though... That seems like it may leech the empathy from individuals growing up. That person is homeless because he didn't try hard enough. I guess I should have made better decisions if I didn't want to be denied healthcare due to a preexisting condition. No, I don't mind falling wages across generations because we're all so entitled and should just show more grit.

And by the way... Re: participation trophies, I'll tell you what. Gen Y and Gen Z are willing to trade the two-cent white ribbons they got for your participation trophies. By which I mean the middle class job with just a high school education and wages strong enough to buy a house with a single income. The things you got just for showing up.
posted by FakeFreyja at 6:38 AM on May 31, 2017 [13 favorites]


By which I mean the middle class job with just a high school education and wages strong enough to buy a house with a single income. The things you got just for showing up.

Who are you talking to? None of that stuff existed for people who were in elementary school in the 80's, or 70's.
posted by thelonius at 7:14 AM on May 31, 2017


Who are you talking to? None of that stuff existed for people who were in elementary school in the 80's, or 70's.

The people who seem to complain the loudest about participation trophies are the Boomers and to a lesser extent the Silents. I am implying that later generations who supposedly got these participation trophies would gladly trade them for the largess previous generations enjoyed as a result of no particular accomplishment.
posted by FakeFreyja at 7:20 AM on May 31, 2017 [8 favorites]


Thanks - sorry - I thought you were trying to blame the supposed recipients of participation trophies for your even bleaker prospects
posted by thelonius at 7:39 AM on May 31, 2017


2. More importantly, precisely nobody was fooled by participation trophies into thinking that everyone was equally good at the thing. As I said, I had like 8 soccer trophies, and never for a second did I, or anyone else, take that to mean that I was anything other than a shitty soccer player.

I'll take this a step further: I was actually mildly embarrassed by participation trophies. I can still remember hating it when they called my name to go up and get the trophy and everyone clapped and acted like I achieved something even though I knew and they knew that I basically just sucked at [whatever the thing was, I sucked at pretty much all competitive endeavors as a child]. And then when I talked about how much I hated getting the trophy - I really did this - my mom would awkwardly try to explain that it was for effort, which somehow just made the whole thing seem more ridiculous.

Seriously, participation trophies made me feel worse about myself, if anything. It was like rubbing salt in a wound.
posted by breakin' the law at 7:46 AM on May 31, 2017 [2 favorites]


I try not to judge
posted by fullerine at 7:49 AM on May 31, 2017


C.S. Lewis:

"You are told to love your neighbour as yourself. How do you love yourself? When I look into my own mind, I find that I do not love myself by thinking myself a dear old chap or having affectionate feelings. I do not think that I love myself because I am particularly good, but just because I am myself and quite apart from my character. I might detest something which I have done. Nevertheless, I do not cease to love myself. . . . Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person's ultimate good as far as it can be obtained."
posted by EarBucket at 9:02 AM on May 31, 2017 [12 favorites]


I blame Stuart Smalley.

Stuart Saves His Family is pretty darn good.
posted by lagomorphius at 9:15 AM on May 31, 2017 [1 favorite]


I'm from Canada, and I'm well into middle age (I'm almost 57), so I didn't know that self-esteem education was a thing nowadays. Is it a uniquely American phenomenon, or do they have it in Canada now too?
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 9:16 AM on May 31, 2017


Is it a uniquely American phenomenon, or do they have it in Canada now too?

They have it in Canada the way everything seeps over the border - I had heard of it, but never had it in school or anything crazy like that.
posted by GuyZero at 9:20 AM on May 31, 2017


MetaFilter: No public acknowledgment for the plagiarist.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:43 AM on May 31, 2017 [2 favorites]


I was in elementary school in Canada in the 90s and it wasn't really a thing the way it's being described.

Hmm, although now that I think about it I did go to Catholic school and there was definitely a strain throughout the religious education that sort of fit the mold, in the sense of "God loves you and you are special."

Also we got participation ribbons, not trophies.
posted by quaking fajita at 9:49 AM on May 31, 2017


The article is not about self esteem as a concept and whether people should have it or not. It's about a specific type of program that was widely adopted in American schools with little evidence of its necessity or efficacy. It was often integrated and administered very poorly, so you'd have the same teachers calling kids names in the morning, then overseeing the 'self esteem' program after lunch.

It was touted as a simple solution to all kinds of cultural problems, including poverty, drug abuse, mental illness, underperforming schools, etc. (See some of the potential problems there?) It really wasn't much more than a magic word people thought would solve all the complicated problems that kids were facing.

Sure, you can make a case that improved self esteem might be a good thing applied wholesale, but you can make a case against that as well. Those arguments are all pretty well documented, and most of them are overly simplistic and speculative.

How various people think these things might play out doesn't really matter. What matters is results, and self-esteem programs have never had the kind of results that would merit the huge investment of resources that were devoted to them. It was all just a huge, poorly controlled social experiment.

Obviously, moving on to the next magic word, whether it's 'grit' or whatever, isn't the answer to all life's problems either. Maybe the answer is to address the complexity and diversity of issues there are out there and stop throwing all our resources at trying to find just the right bumpersticker slogan to make everything better.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:26 AM on May 31, 2017 [6 favorites]


> The older I get, the more ambivalent about the worthwhile-ness of the "self" I become. As a chronically self-fascinated introspector, I can't help but prefer liking myself to hating myself, but what I'd really like is to get the fuck out of my own head for more than three minutes at a time and do. Something.

This is my sense too, that the "self-esteem movement"--indeed, self-esteem as a concept--is a false dilemma: there are more choices than whether to love yourself or not, or how much one should or shouldn't love oneself.

First, that framing isn't objectively true. As far as we can definitely tell, our sense of "self" is an operating system or necessary creation of our minds or something, to navigate our complicated and meta-cognitive organisms; there is no objective evidence that a sense of self is real (one of my favorite ideas is that nascent conscious awareness is molded to the idea of self by the symbols "I" and "me", which create and reinforce the specific idea of a self as we know it.

Simple observation puts the lie to this framing, since we're all processes. Human beings are verbs, not nouns, and the more time we spend thinking about 'how I am' is time we are not spending actually doing the actions that, when strung together, are the stuff of whatever selves we may have. It's like the old Buddhist critique of Cartesian duality: 'I think, therefore I am' sounds like an elemental, basic statement of reality, but is actually built on the assumption that the experience of a self indicates the existence of an objective self (which may or may not be true, but there is scant evidence to favor Descartes' assumption).

Second, we are all victims here, in that we have been swimming for 75 years in the waters of PR and advertising, that have conditioned us into a profound solipsism and preoccupation with the experience of one's self. Not to go all media theory here, but a basic observation of the field of human communication is that our symbols influence and create objective reality in a feedback loop with reality, in fundamental ways (ref. my fixation on the weaponization of hyperreality in the Trump threads over the past few months). So all of us alive today have been essentially trained and coached daily, almost from birth, to be really, hugely preoccupied with ME and MY LIFE and WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE ME and etc., in ways that take healthy adaptations of a meta-cognitive mind/organism and accelerate and increase them to benefit capitalism, with the result that we're all walking around like a body-dysmorphic weight lifter who has a grotesquely giant upper body on twiggy legs: yes, that's basically the way that our organism works (a sense of self is super useful and important) but we've trained it waaaaay out of balance, to a degree that is really harmful overall.

So my own sense is that, to improve overall feelings of well-being and contentment with one's self, we all need to stop thinking about ourselves quite so much, and focus more on verbing in the ways that manifest the self you'd like to be. Obviously I'm glossing over a lot, and know that changing one's emotional/mental health is not as simple as 'bro just do stuff and you'll be fine,' but my point is the framing: I don't think that a person can think themselves into a new way of being as much as be themselves into a new way of thinking. Focusing on one's 'self-esteem' as means to improve it has come to seem to me like focusing on relieving a runny nose as a way to combat viruses--it's mistaking a symptom for the cause.

Living in a culture in the midst of a mental and emotional health crisis (I teach young adults for a living, the kids are not alright in some important ways), I think that this is an urgent question, and how we frame the whole thing points to what solutions we seek, and I worry that we're fixated on treating symptoms and not seeing the larger cause(s).
posted by LooseFilter at 10:43 AM on May 31, 2017 [7 favorites]


I avoid bringing this up every time it occurs to me just because it feels like a Godwin, but the T bomb has already been dropped, so I will point out that a lot of people with a lot of self esteem just voted for a game show host based on the notion that they were special and uniquely deserving. A lot of these people feel entitled to social benefits that they don't extend to others based simply on their inflated sense of importance; and they are (or at least were) so confident in their uniformed opinions and fantasies that they became impervious to the mountains of evidence that didn't support those ideas. They seem to lack the capacity for self doubt or constructive introspection.

It's easy, I suppose, to focus on examples of people who are hard done by, and I haven't seen anyone argue that truly marginalized kids often could use some targeted self esteem work, but wholesale self esteem indoctrination is targeted toward everyone, whether they need it or not. Racists, misogynists, party school frat boys, tech bros, preppers, everyone.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:10 AM on May 31, 2017 [7 favorites]


I really have zero time in my life for anything Jesse Singal writes. Come on metafilter, we can do better than this dude.
posted by Annika Cicada at 11:19 AM on May 31, 2017 [6 favorites]


I avoid bringing this up every time it occurs to me just because it feels like a Godwin, but the T bomb has already been dropped, so I will point out that a lot of people with a lot of self esteem just voted for a game show host based on the notion that they were special and uniquely deserving.

Actually, I would argue quite the opposite. That there are a lot of people who, deep down, have been taught that they're utterly worthless and utterly expendable. Which is exactly why they are so vulnerable to resentment, to being told that they're the best and greatest unlike those other people. Because when someone acts derisive or looks down on them it really hurts, because some part of them believes it's true and they are afraid that part of them is correct, so their instinct is to reject all of that and hide in lies that coddle them.

I think you need a good amount of confidence, of self esteem to take harsh criticism and think "So am I really being a jerk or is this other person just an asshole?" instead of just being resentful because the words hurt. I mean it's not sufficient, but it is necessary.

On the other hand there are a lot of arrogant jackasses whose idea of "self esteem" is "I am always right and better than anyone else." But that's really something else.
posted by Zalzidrax at 12:44 PM on May 31, 2017 [9 favorites]


I really have zero time in my life for anything Jesse Singal writes. Come on metafilter, we can do better than this dude.

I'm not aware of who he is or his other writing? What's his deal?
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 12:49 PM on May 31, 2017


You can google his name, read critiques of his work, read his other writings and go look at his twitter account. I'm super busy at work and I don't have time to really encapsulate The whole shebang around this dude.

To sum my opinion: He really doesn't contribute meaningful dialogue but rather just takes very dry, serious and yet somehow un-ironic pisstakes on subjects he would do better to leave well enough alone.
posted by Annika Cicada at 1:35 PM on May 31, 2017 [1 favorite]


"Believe in yourself and anything is possible"

For a international perspective, I was raised to always operate under the assumption that I'm a work in progress and there is always room for improvement. I was also taught that being flawed is perfectly okay, as long as I'm behaving ethically.

As an adult in the US, I do think the "...and everything is possible" bit in how Americans see self esteem unnecessarily links self worth to achievement, and in my experience this makes people too afraid to try things they're going to suck at, and too focused on the achievement when goals seem attainable.

For example, I work in program evaluation, and giving feedback to US born people can be tricky, because they tend to take it very personally (and how could they not? Personal value is derived from achievement, after all). I have to sandwich, praise, give them opportunities to "save face", etc. When I give negative feedback to non US staff (middle east, South America) they go Ooooh! Okay! And they move on.

At school it's the same. People in my graduate program are seriously affronted when they don't get an A, which I find really confusing. A grade is just the summation of your work. In a sense, you give yourself the grade.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that in an effort to increase self-esteem, things became kind of a thou protest too much scenario.
posted by Tarumba at 3:45 PM on May 31, 2017 [6 favorites]



The problem that is being missed here is that defining self esteem appropriately is deeply difficult. In fact, there are lots of sociopaths who have very high self regard— making them feel better about themselves will not make them more empathetic, kinder or less likely to behave in antisocial ways. In fact, there are studies that suggest that bullies score high on measures of self esteem and do not benefit from having it boosted.

Some argue that this is simply because underneath the arrogant front is deep self-hate— and that is sometimes true. But not always: if the person lacks empathy or any sense that other people matter, trying to make them feel better about this isn't going to yield the prosocial results intended Consider Donald Trump: he does not ever seem to think anyone but him deserves anything and is immune to shame. His problem is not lack of self esteem— but lack of empathy.

Basically, the wrong people hate themselves: if you hate yourself for being a bad person, this means you have a conscience, which suggests that you are actually not a bad person even if you can't always live up to your own standards or those you think you should live up to that are set by others.

The bottom line is that context matters. Relieving self hatred by raising your sense of being valuable can improve depression and reduce risk for addiction (or relapse if you already have it). But just trying to increase people's sense of entitlement isn't always a good thing— if you do not have any regard for others, raising your regard for yourself is just going to make you a worse person.
posted by Maias at 5:39 PM on May 31, 2017 [3 favorites]


Couldn't you say the same thing about alleviating poverty or promoting public education or anything else? Sociopaths and other undesirables will be among those rising out of poverty and being educated.

Saying that we'd better not cultivate positive self-regard because the wrong sort of people might end up thinking well of themselves reminds me of a teacher in my early-90s high school who said that he didn't want students learning too much about computers lest they engage in mischief.
posted by XMLicious at 6:30 PM on May 31, 2017 [6 favorites]


the wrong people hate themselves

I doubt very much that anyone should hate themselves, in a global sense. It's important to have a grounded and realistic sense of your own capacities and weaknesses and (especially) moral failings. Humility is part of that. But self-hatred isn't humility, it's a distorted form of pride; it's about holding the mistaken and unhealthy belief that any flaw in the self is absolutely intolerable and means that the self should be utterly rejected. Many people who behave terribly to others share this underlying belief that being flawless is the only way to have an acceptable self -- they just work hard to believe they're flawless, so it doesn't get them down. Self-hatred isn't the cure for what ails them, it's just another variant of the same disease. If they calmed down about accepting their imperfections, they would be able to do lot more towards addressing them.

I don't think healthy self-esteem means believing that your completely static and unchangeable self is completely perfect. It just means you think it's okay to exist in the world as a flawed and changing person and that there is nothing so wrong with you that it can't be addressed. That's a good belief, more people should have it, and teachers should help their pupils to acquire it.

I don't know. I didn't go to school in the US, and wasn't taught that I am super-special and that I can do anything if I believe. Those seem like unhelpful and potentially damaging beliefs, and I'm grateful I didn't have them pushed at me. But I did go to a school, for a chunk of my childhood in India, where teachers were really committed to the idea that self-esteem was nonsense and that kids should feel deep shame and unworthiness about not paying attention in class or failing to get a maths problem right on the first attempt etc. It would have been nice if someone had told them something about the value of healthy self-esteem. Special self-esteem programmes in school sound silly and - as the article suggests, ineffective - but teachers should be attentive to the kind of self-talk they are teaching their pupils every day, in every lesson. "I'm lovable and capable" is 10000% better than "I'm a failure that no one could like."
posted by Aravis76 at 10:09 PM on May 31, 2017 [1 favorite]


I was on the receiving end of much self-esteem-based education, and I found the experience harmful and worthless. And I was a bullied social outcast -- the exact kind of kid this sort of program was intended to help.

First and foremost, the teachers, the adults -- they really weren't fooling anybody. When somebody tells you that you did A REALLY GREAT JOB when in fact you know you did a shitty or mediocre job, you catch on real quick. Not only does it not achieve the intended goal, but it actually devalues all praise coming from that person. You know they're only saying things to make you feel better.

Second, being recognized as someone with "low self-esteem" wasn't helpful at all. All it did was earn the attention of some well-meaning, utterly ineffectual adults. And while this may have felt good at the time -- finally, someone being nice to me! -- it didn't help with my actual problems. Put simply, I was never properly socialized, and didn't have the social skills to form friendships or react to normal childhood teasing. No amount of special treatment from adults was going to help with that. In fact, it probably was detrimental -- getting that kind of special attention was addictive. I knew that self-identifying as "low self-esteem" was a surefire way to get attention.

So I say bury the self esteem movement in the world's deepest ditch and throw away the shovel. Empty praise does more harm than good. Kids don't need empty praise, and they don't need more "grit." What they need are skills. Interpersonal skills. Study skills. Communication skills. Useful feedback. And yes -- praise when they show progress towards something. They need to trust that you will tell them when they've done something well or poorly. If you lose that, how will you teach them anything?
posted by panama joe at 11:09 PM on May 31, 2017 [10 favorites]


But I did go to a school, for a chunk of my childhood in India, where teachers were really committed to the idea that self-esteem was nonsense and that kids should feel deep shame and unworthiness about not paying attention in class or failing to get a maths problem right on the first attempt etc. It would have been nice if someone had told them something about the value of healthy self-esteem.

Good point. Cheerleaders don't win the game but shouldn't cheer against the team either. Self-esteem boosting can be seen as a signal that you aren't a shamer, which would be useful to someone wary of it; though it may be important to alert a victim of low expectations that they are also victimizing themselves with least effort, but only from unconditional support. I note that the original definition of self-esteem, from the California initiative that sponsored the research and promotion, did nothing to suggest that it was based on self-admiration. It was the later non-sequitur that suggested that low self-esteem was the root cause of poor performance and little else. From the first link:

The task force didn’t get off to a particularly quick or efficient start. It took its members more than a year to come up with a practical definition of self-esteem in the first place, with “[a]ppreciating my own worth and importance, and having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly toward others” winning out. But once the task force had picked up a little, some momentum kicked in, and the underlying idea became more and more seductive: What if all sorts of bad social outcomes really were caused directly by low self-esteem? That would suggest a very easy vector for fixing them — one that could appeal not only to New Agey liberals but to budget-conscious conservatives, too. This bipartisanship was key to the idea’s success and widespread adoption.
posted by Brian B. at 7:31 AM on June 1, 2017


This discussion made me realize that there's a weird axis of variation among people. At one end of the axis are people like panama joe:
When somebody tells you that you did A REALLY GREAT JOB when in fact you know you did a shitty or mediocre job, you catch on real quick. Not only does it not achieve the intended goal, but it actually devalues all praise coming from that person. You know theyre only saying things to make you feel better.
That is, they consider the source of the evaluation, and discount praise from people whose praise is too easily earned.

At the other end of the axis are people who...don't? I'm not one of these people, so I can't quite describe what they're thinking, but maybe they're just very plainspoken and expect the same of others? Or they know it's empty praise but they're flattered someone at least thought it was worthwhile to lie for their benefit? I'm not sure.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:42 PM on June 1, 2017


At the other end of the axis are people who...don't? I'm not one of these people, so I can't quite describe what they're thinking, but maybe they're just very plainspoken and expect the same of others? Or they know it's empty praise but they're flattered someone at least thought it was worthwhile to lie for their benefit? I'm not sure.

I mean, this is a fairly disingenuous reading of what some of those people have said in this very thread.

For myself, the recipient of many participation ribbons (you came in 3rd in the hula hooping contest on Field Day!) and at least one participation trophy (you were on this softball team during this year!), they didn't particularly bother me because I took them as what they were-- not rewards, but souvenirs. The message of a participation [item] is not "YOU'RE AMAZING YOU DID THE BEST JOB GOOD JOB YOU ARE A CHAMPION!!!!" The message of a participation [item] is "you were present for this event, and you participated." The boomer tendency to assume that any of them meant anything other than "you showed up" is something I find truly puzzling.

Also, regarding overblown praise, I remember being young and feeling fairly skeptical about the enthusiasm grownups showed for my own half-assed work. But then, as an adult, I taught for seven years, and I learned that teachers have to deal with so much absolute garbage that "this kid showed up and at least tried" actually DOES begin to look like an impressive achievement. Sometimes praise doesn't have to mean "you are objectively the best in all situations." Sometimes praise means "in these current circumstances, you did better than many of the other people in your situation, and you should know that."

(In one particular semester, I'm sure many of my students wondered why I was so enthusiastic about their middling work, and the secret answer was "unlike one of your classmates, you haven't threatened to hurt me because of a grade! GOOD JOB YOU'RE DOING GREAT SWEETIE A++++ AT BEING A NORMAL FUNCTIONING STUDENT WHO DOES SOME OF THE READING AND KIND OF UNDERSTANDS IT!!!")
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:33 AM on June 2, 2017 [9 favorites]


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