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Serving self-esteem on a silver platter hasn't worked

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Dolly Withrow Dolly Withrow
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Dolly Withrow is a retired English professor and the author of four books. Contact Dolly at ritewood@aol.com.

After approximately 40 years of the self-esteem debacle, the results are in. Studies have revealed the disastrous effects of handing out false self-esteem in the same way we might distribute cookies on a silver tray.

One psychologist who helped to launch the self-esteem movement now admits the outcome of the studies is not encouraging. It was originally believed that instilling high self-esteem among our young people would solve everything from crime to low academic performances to state budget problems. On the contrary, students who had been coddled in the feel-good-about-themselves velvet glove often did much worse on tests than those who were taught self-discipline and the value of hard work. Crime continues unabated. Too many college graduates cannot read or write, and our budget problems in government, from local to national, have worsened.    

Not surprisingly, many educators and parenting experts also promoted this catastrophic program, which subsequently cost taxpayers millions of dollars (and I'm not counting the negative effects of the program). Just as bad weather moves from west to the east, so do many of these off-the-wall, devastating programs. California initiated the program, and it crept like destructive mold from the West Coast to the East Coast.

The greatest fear too many American have today is that they might hurt someone's feelings and, thereby, lower self-esteem. We've become so super-sensitive that we're almost linguistically paralyzed, lest we say the wrong thing or use the wrong word. Good grief.

There was no fear of language usage in yesteryear. "Smug," "arrogant," "cocky," and "conceited" were typical words we at one time used for persons who had an inflated view of themselves. Those prissy-pants were generally disliked. Moreover, they were unable to learn much because they felt they already knew it all, and they were also labeled "know-it-alls." 

Genuine self-esteem grows from within; it grows with each bit of knowledge and with each accomplishment. Several years ago, I wrote about the damaging practice of handing out unearned self-esteem in the classrooms. I had no studies at that time to back up my assertions, but as my daughter said, surely no one needed to conduct a study on the impact of bestowing false self-esteem on students. In fact, a friend who was teaching at an Ivy League university wrote to ask me what I would do with students in her classroom who couldn't write on a third-grade level. I told her I would record failing grades to reflect actual performances. I told her I was categorically opposed to giving students inflated grades to make them feel good about themselves. I did not hear from her again, for my response was not supportive of the moment's movement in education.

The self-esteem study further revealed that people with an overblown self-image performed poorly on their jobs. We no longer need wonder why such workers feel they can be chronically tardy and should be excused because their alarms didn't go off or they were up late or whatever. The excuses for tardiness, absenteeism and slacking off on the job have become as numerous as the educators who fell for this costly failed program.

In one meeting of educators, teachers were taught not to use red pens and not to criticize students for errors in grammar and spelling. My last stint in higher education came after I had been retired for 10 years. I was able to compare what 10 additional years of the velvet-glove treatment had accomplished. Several students who at the beginning of the semester could not write a grammatical sentence asked at the end of the semester if I believed they had all made straight A's in English throughout their school years. I did.

Dr. Roy E. Baumeister has been called "the father of the self-esteem movement." The results of his own research, carried out in the 1990s, caused him to reverse his premise that low self-esteem was a problem and that curing it could cure many social ills. He concluded that the premise was completely false and said, "Forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline."

He has it right this time, but it might be too late.