August 28, 2007

Further thoughts on self-esteem and self-confidence

In one of my own comments to my post the other week on children, responsibility, and hard work, I mentioned "the whole self-esteem vs. self-confidence business (I consider the former nonsense, the latter vital)", and my good friend hornblower at HMS Indefatigable replied,
One other thing though - in your comments Becky, where you talk about self confidence coming from doing things well. Yes, I agree with that. But I'm actually a big fan of self-esteem & quite like the term. IMO, it comes from something so basic, so simple, and yet something many parents fail at: kids need to be loved, cherished, accepted for being themselves. Not because they did something well, know something, contribute something, look good or make the family look good. But just because they are. That is the primary gift of a great parent & from there comes an unshakeable core of self.

Not implying you disagree (though feel free to!) but I sometimes get a little overwhelmed by the emphasis on doing, as opposed to being.....
Since I threw out my comments very briefly and parenthetically, I think I owe it especially to hornblower to expand on my thoughts.

I see self-esteem and self-confidence as two sides of the same coin. Or rather, self-esteem as self-confidence's evil twin, especially as self-esteem has been co-opted by North American school systems to consist of a great deal of the curriculum.

Esteem I understand as (blame my high school Latin teacher...) as value, regard, worth, standing, and rank, and I think that inner core of a person, especially a child, should be more virtue (in the classical sense) than value, if that makes any sense, especially the virtue of belief in oneself regardless, as hornblower says, of looks or abilities. Self-esteem, particularly as it's promoted in North American schools, I understand as a little more than an obsession with feeling good about oneself, and it tends to be a concept imposed from without, rarely a successful method of effecting change.

My main experience with self-esteem and its promotion as an educational tool has come from the local school system, especially Laura's early years, first with play school, then kindergarten (part of the year here and the remainder in the West Indies, with two very different results, in part because the former promoted self-esteem and the latter self-confidence), and then several months of first grade, before we began home schooling. And yes, there was a shameful big-deal graduation from play school and one from kindergarten -- the latter of which, darn it all, we missed by leaving partway through the year. All of her Canadian schools, but interestingly not the West Indian one, saw, in the words of Charles J. Sykes in his Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can't Read, Write, or Add, their "ultimate product as the well-adjusted teamworker with a healthy sense of self-esteem". Sykes goes on to say that such schools are "unlikely to adopt the same means as a school whose goal is individualists", which is part of the reason we abandoned public school for home school when we discovered Laura to be a year ahead of her classmates and the school interested only in "age appropriate" curriculum, most of it centered around boosting self-esteem and patting little backs for no good reason. But that's another story and another post...

Because self-esteem tends to be a top-down affair, it's hard to pass along just the right dose. It either doesn't stick, because it gets stuck in the trickling down, from adult to child; and kids in general are smart enough to know when something is hollow or has been trowelled on thickly. Or, kids get an overdose, veering dangerously from self-esteem into self-absorption and self-gratification. This is one of the reasons I like The Well-Trained Mind's approach to teaching and learning history. When I first read the chapter on teaching history to young children, Laura was in first grade at the local public school, where the social studies curriculum that year was the ungrammatical and self-centered "Me, My Family, and Other Families". The provincial education ministry in all its certificated wisdom sees fit to arrange the the world around first graders, whereas the authors of WTM see things rather differently:
A common assumption found in history curricula seems to be that children can't comprehend (or be interested in) people and events distant from their own experience. So the first-grade history is renamed Social Studies and begins with what the child knows: first, himself and his family, followed by his community, his state, his country, and only then the rest of the world.

This intensely self-focused pattern of study encourages the student of history to relate everything he studies to himself, to measure the cultures and customs of other peoples against his own experience. And that's exactly what the classical education fights against -- a self-absorbed, self-referential approach to knowledge. History learned this way makes our needs and wants the center of the human endeavor. This attitude is destructive at any time, but it is especially destructive in the present global civilization.

The goal of the classical curriculum is multicultural in the best sense of the word: the student learns the proper place of his community, his state [or province], and his country by seeing the broad sweep of history from its beginning and then fitting his own time and place into that great landscape.
Or as Miss Manners says in her Guide to Rearing Perfect Children,
Schools first started doing parental tasks because they thought parents were neglecting them; and now there are parents desperately trying to make up for the neglect of academic subjects on the part of teachers. The neglect, on both parts, is rarely mere callousness. On the contrary, it is often connected with the idealistic belief that the object of anyone entrusted with a child is to make that child happy, and that the happiest child is one free of constraint. Miss Manners loathes that theory, and doesn't notice that it has much of a record of success. It is her belief that happiness is a by-product, and that the happy child is one who has been carefully trained to use his abilities to take on challenges and overcome them.

The happiness theory is full of self-defeating characteristics. It directs the child's attention back into himself, instead of taking the natural self-absorption with which we were all born, and which we are in no danger of losing, and turning it outward, so that the ability to take delight in a varied and curious world may be developed. It also coddles our natural laziness, so that energies that could be put into growth are put into finding excuses and examining reasons for the lack of it.
I'd hazard a guess that an overdeveloped sense of self-esteem, not to mention "a self-absorbed, self-referential approach to knowledge" may well play a part in the infantilization of young adults.

Self-confidence, on the other hand, develops from within a child and as it takes root within becomes increasingly difficult to dislodge. It's the result of good, thoughtful parenting as well as of a child's efforts and achievements, though these needn't amount to much at all in the early years. Self-confidence can easily apply to the idea that, as hornblower wrote, "kids need to be loved, cherished, accepted for being themselves. Not because they did something well, know something, contribute something, look good or make the family look good. But just because they are. That is the primary gift of a great parent & from there comes an unshakeable core of self." But I don't know how much time a great, or even good, parent really needs to devote to establishing, or later maintaining, a confident core of self in a child, as long as you let your children know, well and often -- and that doesn't mean with workbooks, activities, programs, and curricula -- that you love them as they are.

I do think that even more important than just "being", or being a wonderful you, is the vital necessity to a child of belonging to a family (however it is comprised) and being needed. I'm no psychologist, and maybe Robert Epstein would disagree, but it seems that some of the general footlooseness I see in the teenagers I know is the result of their realization, however unconscious, that they aren't particularly needed in the family, that they can go about their daily activities with friends or alone and not be missed outside of school hours, even under the same roof, with everyone microwaving his or her separate meal at different hours, sitting in front of the computer or television in private bedrooms, everyone in the backyard but plugged into an individual iPod, or taking separate vacations (sometimes even at the same destination or resort). The very youngest children can help the family with needed tasks such as folding towels, feeding the cat, making a card for a sibling's birthday, holding the map in the car, and they soon learn the importance not just of being loved just because, but of being trusted, being able, and being needed.

I'll leave the last words to Charles Sykes, from Dumbing Down Our Kids [links and aside added by me]:
Whether the programs of self-esteem are motivated by a romantic view of childhood, by adult guilt, or simply by a desire to spare children pain, it is increasingly obvious that these eminently well-intentioned efforts often have unintended consequences. Members of the generation that braved the Depression and World War II were so anxious to spare their own children the deprivations of their youth that they created the pampered generation of the baby boomers. The boomers (and Generation X), in turn, seem determined to spare their children the emotional and psychological privations they imagined that they might have suffered in their own youth. While the Depression generation hastened to make sure the boomers would never lack material possessions, today's parents seem anxious to spare their children the stress, anxiety, and pressures of their youth. Neither of the elder generations seem to have foreseen what such indulgence might mean for the younger generations which not only have been deprived of the adversity of the previous generation, but also of the opportunities to test themselves against those challenges. [My own theory is that Mildred Armstrong Kalish's very contrary opinion, in Little Heathens, is what has made the book sparkle so and touch such a nerve in so many readers.]

Trying to understand the courage and character of the English miners of the 1930s, whose lives he had been observing, George Orwell speculated about the source of their strength and dignity in the face of adversity. "The truth is," he wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, "that many of the qualities we admire in human beings can only function in opposition to some kind of disaster, pain or difficulty; but the tendency of mechanical progress is to eliminate disaster, pain and difficulty." While no one would argue that every effort should not be made to reduce disasters and pain, Orwell's point about the moral consequences of dealing with difficulties is a crucial insight into the way the human soul develops and grows.
Just as I was finishing this post, I came across Poppins' recent post, Shine On,
"Born to Shine" by Joshua Kadison. It has an uplifting message that boils down to: you were born to shine; everything is fine. Baldly stated it loses all of its poetry. Do yourself a favour and listen to the song or I'll get hate mail from Kadison for misrepresenting his artistry. ...

..."Aha!" came the thought, "I should play this for [daughter] Sandra." And then the visceral realization slammed into me: she doesn't need it. No one is squashing her. No one is making her feel wrong. She is shining. It's her own light that I see in her eyes and hear in her laugh and marvel at in her conversation. She isn't wounded.
It occurs to me that another reason that much of the self-esteem business in schools doesn't stick is because rather than fostering high self-esteem in children, it can introduce instead a nasty, niggling kernel of self-doubt. Which is probably as good a way as any of undermining any self-esteem or self-confidence a child already has.

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