Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Horrors of High Self-Esteem

Getting back to the post from a couple of days ago on self-esteem, it should first be recognized that a "rule" of psychology is typically going to apply in about 80% of cases. With regard to praising kids, that "80%" rule takes two forms:

First, some kids who are praised unduly, even to the point of developing completely unrealistic images of themselves and Axis II disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder are successful. If you define being elected to a national political office or the Presidency as success, for example, you'll find that a huge number of those successful individuals could be diagnosed with Axis II disorders. Some of these people are bright and capable in addition to being self-absorbed and narcissistic; others personify the Peter Principle and (ht: a comment at The Nonsequitur) the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Second, sometimes kids need praise. Sometimes they need an "I'm proud of you," or "You're an amazing kid", even when it's divorced from a specific effort or achievement. It's not bad parenting to recognize and respond to that need.

I was reading an article today about a kid who, by the measure described in Will's editorial, should have been completely ruined. Let's start with his name - his parents named him after a god. Not a god from ancient mythology - a god from an actively practiced religion. And he learned at a very young age to love adulation and being the center of attention, even when it had nothing to do with achievement. At the age of five, coincidentally looking like a child featured in a movie his family had gone to see, the manager "held him up in the air, to the applause of the foyer crowd," inspiring "a love of adulation". By the time he was in elementary school, in his own words, "I was blessed by being a very popular child. I was often the life and soul of the classroom". Surely a recipe for disaster?

Well, not so much. Pursuing a career in entertainment, despite being encouraged by a couple of the Beatles to instead pursue music, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. At the age of 38 he appeared in his first feature film role... and won an Oscar for Best Actor (Sir Ben Kingsley, born Krishna Bhanji.) No doubt, he still has robust self-esteem.

The point here, obviously, is not to defend school efforts to bolster self-esteem, nor is it to paint self-esteem as a sure path to success. There are notable actors of similar or greater accomplishment who were introverts, unsure of themselves, gripped by stage fright even at the peak of their careers. You can't point to what a particular pair of parents do with a specific child and say, "That's going to make the kid great," or "That kid's going to be a wreck." Yes, you can speak to odds, but sometimes (albeit rarely) the kid who you least expect to succeed grows up to be Chris Rock, and the kid with seemingly insurmountable obstacles against future fame and fortune grows up to be Oprah Winfrey. Similarly, there are kids who have good parents who "do everything right" and who are offered many opportunities, yet live invisible lives of mediocrity.

It's hard to make statements about self-esteem that aren't meaningless. "People should have good self-esteem", or "health senses of self", whatever that means. Some people are self-confident, and that helps them throughout their careers. Other people seem to be driven by angst, insecurity, and a need to prove themselves. It's safe to say that building self-esteem to boost school performance will largely be counter-productive, but the more important question is whether our schools are preparing kids for a future in which the best jobs are unlikely to involve rote memorization, rule-following, punctuality, and sitting obediently behind a desk.

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