When Self-Esteem Fails Our Kids

I read a brief news item recently about a school which would no longer give low marks to students, such as a fail, because it did not want the kids’ self-esteem to be damaged. It felt such grades would unfairly disadvantage these kids, and take away their motivation to better themselves.

We certainly hear a lot about self-esteem these days. I even recently read in a church bulletin an announcement for a course on how to improve one’s self-esteem. Now undoubtedly some of us could do with a bit of help on our sagging self-esteem. But I suspect a whole lot more of us need some real help on such things as personal responsibility, distinguishing between right and wrong, and learning how to stop playing the victim.

We live in an age which, in the name of fairness and compassion, says we are all victims. We seek to pin the blame for the ills of the world on anyone or anything but ourselves. Taking responsibility for our own actions is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Instead, we want everyone to simply feel good about themselves.

In such a climate what is needed is some old-fashioned realism, or even the old-fashioned word, sin. The need for such moral realism is not new. Back in 1973 psychiatrist Dr Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin? A good question. Instead of sin, which presumes personal responsibility, we talk about self-esteem and feeling good. But such feel-goodism is unlikely to cure what really ails us.

What we need, in other words, is the ability to face up to the fact that we are all moral beings who make moral choices and those choices have consequences. Instead of so much self-esteem education, and feel-good psycho-babble, we could probably all do a lot better simply by a careful study of the Ten Commandments.

But, people will argue, what is wrong with a little self-esteem? Well, in moderation, it may have its place. But we are being inundated with it, and it is turning our kids into selfish, weak, and hedonistic miscreants.

American columnist Dennis Prager gives a good example of the downside to all this self-esteem mumbo-jumbo. In a piece entitled “Compassion and the Decline of America,” he points out that the current craze for self-esteem, compassion and tolerance is really harming our kids, and not helping them (townhall.com, March 20, 2007).

He begins with a story about a friend whose 13-year-old son played in a baseball game:

“His son’s team was winning 24-7 as the game entered the last inning. When he looked up at the scoreboard, he noticed that the score read 0-0. Naturally, he inquired as to what happened – was the scoreboard perhaps broken? – and was told that the winning team’s coach asked the scoreboard keeper to change the score. He and some of the parents were concerned that the boys on the losing team felt humiliated. In order to ensure that the boys losing by a lopsided score would not feel too bad, the score was changed. As is happening throughout America, compassion trumped all other values.”

Now some might demur, ‘that was a nice gesture’. But was it? Prager doesn’t think so: “Truth was the first value compassion trashed. In the name of compassion, the adults in charge decided to lie. The score was not 0-0; it was 24-7. Wisdom was the second value compassion obliterated. It is unwise to the point of imbecilic to believe that the losing boys were in any way helped by changing the score. On the contrary, they learned lessons that will hamper their ability to mature.”

Prager lists some of these negative lessons: “They learned that someone will bail them out when they feel bad. They learned that they do not have to deal with disappointment in life. Instead, someone in authority will take care of them. (This is how reliance on the state for personal problems – the worldview of the Left – is formed early in life.) They learned that their feelings, not objective standards, are what society deems most important. They learned that they are not responsible for their behavior. No matter how poorly they perform, there will be no consequences – sort of like tenure for university professors. . . . At the same time, the boys on the winning team learned not to try their best. Why bother?”

The third value trumped by compassion was building character: “People build character far more through handling defeat than through winning. The human being grows up only when forced to deal with disappointment. We remain children until the day we take full responsibility for our lives. Our increasingly feelings-based society has created a pandemic of immaturity in our society. And there are fewer and fewer maturity-creating institutions in our society. Indeed, the opposite is more often the case. Schools, for example, keep young people immature, none more so than college, which serves primarily to postpone adulthood.”

The value of fairness was a fourth casualty of this misplaced compassion. “It is remarkable how often compassion-based liberals speak of ‘fairness’ in formulating social policy given how unfair so many of their policies are. It was entirely unfair to the winning team to have their score expunged, all their work denied. But for the compassion-first crowd, the winning team is like ‘the rich’ who earn ‘too much’ and should therefore be penalized with a higher tax rate; the winning team scored ‘too many’ runs to be allowed to keep them all.”

Prager continues, “Compassion in social policy almost always produces unfair results. Compassion for murderers allows them to keep their lives after taking the life of another. Compassion for minorities leads to affirmative action, which means that individuals who are not members of a designated minority will be treated unfairly. Compassion for immigrant children led to bilingual education, which subsequently prevented most of those children from advancing in American society.”

Concludes Prager: “Compassion as the primary determinant of behavior is effective in personal life. In making public policy, it is a morally and socially destructive guideline. In fact, it is so bad that thinking people must conclude that its primary purpose is to enable policy makers who are guided by compassion to feel good about themselves.”

Feeling good about oneself is not the most important thing in life. In fact, it may not even make it into the top ten. Doing what is right, helping others, developing self-control, pursuing virtue – both private and public, as the ancient Greek philosophers taught – are far more worthy goals in life.

By getting rid of failing marks in our schools and the like, we are not only dumbing down our kids, but morally dumbing them down as well.


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4 Replies to “When Self-Esteem Fails Our Kids”

  1. Spot-on Bill. All this stuff does is serve to weaken our society. Does anyone smell a conspiracy theory here?
    Ian Brearley

  2. It is a shame that many churches have fallen for the self-esteem stuff, but one should always be like the noble Bereans and check this with Scripture (Acts 17:11).

    For example, nowhere in the Bible is there any teaching that we need to learn to love ourselves. Rather, the only verse which talks about lovers of self is 2 Timothy 3:1-2:

    But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves (Greek philautoi), lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,

    And the Scriptural emphasis seems to be about dying to self and taking up the cross (Luke 14:26-27 ‘hate’ is a common Jewish exaggeration for ‘love much less’):

    “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters — yes, even his own life — he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

    Philippians 2:3-4:

    Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

    At Uni student Christian conferences, I’ve heard the reasoning that `love your neighbor as yourself.’ means that you have to learn to love yourself first before you can love your neighbour. But Jesus gave this command to everyone, meaning that he must have believed that we all already know how to love ourselves and need no training to do so. After all, we all more or less take care of ourselves, feed ourselves, protect ourselves from hurt, etc. Even one who is suicidal loves himself, in that he is prepared to commit self-murder to spare himself pain or heartbreak. The above passages indicate that the self-love doesn’t need to be learnt; rather it needs to be corrected, and we must love our neighbours likewise.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  3. Bill, excellent again!
    When I was growing up (:-) ) people who played the “victim game” were called “sooks” and treated most disparagingly. Hmm, almost like second-class citizens, in fact.
    John Angelico

  4. Christ died for all of us, and that is what most people don’t like to hear or even consider, but out of that death of the crucifixion there is love, knowledge and deep understanding of not only the Godly world but ourselves too. Self esteem is one item in our personality that needs balancing, especially in our childhood. The Bible says, spare the rod, and spoil the child. We are supposed to train our kids to be responsible, and giving them high marks even when they have failed so as not to injure their ego won’t work.
    Albert Kamau

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