Can cool look at self-esteem rescue children from a fool's paradise?

Can cool look at self-esteem rescue children from a fool's paradise?
16 September 2007

Self-esteem cures all ills. Children who think well of themselves will do better in school and in life than those who are plagued by self-doubt – who are likely to get into all types of trouble.

These are common assumptions among those who work with children. Indeed, for some, they are orthodoxy. The trouble is they don’t appear to be true.

Kristjan Kristjansson of the University of Akureyri in Iceland lays out the evidence in a recent article in the Journal of Philosophy of Education. His reviews of a wide range of research show that:

• self-esteem is more often the result than the cause of school success; indeed most studies show that self-esteem has no impact on educational performance over time and that attempts to 'boost' it can be counter-productive

• risky behaviors – such as smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, and sexual activity – are generally not related to children's self-esteem; however, when they are related, the link is usually between high self-esteem and risky behavior, perhaps because children with high self-esteem feel invulnerable and are more likely to take foolish risks

• bullies do not lash out at others because of self-doubt; in fact, bullies tend to have higher self-esteem than other children.

Kristjansson argues that teachers, therapists, researchers (and others concerned about children) should pay more attention to what he calls 'justified self-esteem'. Rather than trying to make young people feel good about themselves to boost their success, they should give them opportunities to set reasonable goals for themselves, to assess their performance honestly, and then to take satisfaction in whatever they are able to accomplish.

Sure, there will be disappointments in such a process, but he cautions that “it is better for students’ future learning to know where they stand than to live in a fool’s paradise.”

Summary of “Justified Self-Esteem” by Kristjan Kristjansson in the Journal of Philosophy of Education, Volume 41 Issue 2, Page 247-261, May 2007.

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