The Self-Esteem Movement

One of my favorite bloggers writes:

The whole self-esteem movement in schools has pretty much removed failure as an option for kids and competition has ceased to have any real meaning.

I have seen such statements on other blogs in the past but, since I’m not very familiar with the high school system in the US, I’m not sure what the “self-esteem movement in schools” is about. Can anybody explain? Has anybody seen it in practice?

Because this sounds like something I might want to denounce. 🙂


37 thoughts on “The Self-Esteem Movement”

  1. The self-esteem movement is the elimination of any sort of stratification. It’s the ‘everyone gets a participation trophy’ mentality. Never celebrating true excellence, because it might hurt the feelings of those who aren’t great. Kid’s aren’t allowed to fail an assignment or test, because it might be too discouraging and destroy their future. And such nonsense.


    1. Patrick, why are your comments stuck in moderation all of a sudden? I’m not doing anything differently, are you?

      Now, is the system you describe an actual system that is adopted in actual schools? Because I find it hard to believe that anybody would really use such a system for education purposes. It just sounds crazy to me.


      1. That’s because Patrick is misrepresenting the self-esteem movement. I have attended a high school and currently attend a sixth form in England both of which adhere to the self-esteem movement. To be quite honest (if you don’t mind me saying so myself), I was and am one of the smarter kids and not once have I felt like my achievements haven’t been celebrated because it might upset someone who failed; not once have I seen every single person in a class be allowed to pass a test, just for the sake of ‘not hurting people’s feelings’.

        The self-esteem movement is focused on and around making people feel proud of what they do achieve, opposed to allowing kids to feel like failures because they didn’t do well in a something else.
        People still fail in self-esteem schools, that is the nature of exams. The self-esteem movement is about making people feel proud as long as they have done the best that they possibly can; a meritocracy of effort, one might say, nothing more.


        1. *not once have I felt like my achievements haven’t been celebrated*

          Jaime, what do you mean by achievements (good grades? first places in state/ country competition?) and “haven’t been celebrated”? Celebrated by whom? How? It may sound as if you say “self-esteem for poor students is OK, but what about me not getting all the head-pets and praise from teachers in front of the class? What about my self-esteem?”

          I don’t mean it in a bad way. I honestly don’t get your meaning, except for this interpretation.


          1. Getting praise in the front of the class has never really been something that has never really motivated me that much. Various teachers point me out sometimes, obviously. But (at the risk of being corny), I have always felt as if doing well is really a motivation in itself.
            The people who dislike the self-esteem trend are the kids who want to feel special for doing better than others, the narcissists essentially. These people who don’t really know what they want from life, other than praise from teachers and parents and admiration from their peers.
            All I have ever really wanted to do was teach and I’ve wanted to do it since I was 10, anything that helps me achieve that aim is a reward in itself.
            Of course I like being praised, because I am just as human as the next man, but if make a particular point in a discussion or write a good essay and I don’t get highlighted for it, I aren’t going to complain or moan that the teacher is giving priority to the kids who probably need the attention more than I do anyway.


            1. You’re forgetting the difference between introverts and extroverts. Jamie, you sound very much like an introvert – one who is motivated by their own actions. There are many people out there who are extroverts, and they need that external re-enforcement of a job well done.


              1. I think the point of the self esteem movement is that that external validation needn’t come in the form of ‘Y, you’re better than X’ (which can damage X’s self esteem, especially if that’s all he/she ever hears) but rather ‘Y, you did brilliantly’.


        2. You do sound very smart, Jaime, and you paint a very attractive picture of the self-esteem movement, but let me ask you this: have you ever seen exactly this theory in practice in places other than in your school (and there is a chance institutional loyalty might make your school appear rosier than it is).

          Self-esteem, as I have seen it, amounts to people shifting verbal markers of identity or description — like race/colour of skin, body shape, ethnicity, social class, disabilities et al — instead of working at removing the actual stigma. It’s a quick-fix, lazy solution, like sensitivity seminars. One may no longer use the N-word, thank goodness, but the prejudice, amongst those it exists, has remained unchecked. The mass hysteria around the word ‘fat’ is a more recent example. One can no longer publicly say ‘My doctor said I must lose weight to be healthier’ without the very real possibility of someone jumping up and calling the poor chap all sorts of names for ‘fat shaming’ his patients and damaging their self-esteem.

          In the classroom, too, Clarissa, self-esteem is frequently misused by admins and teachers who absolutely do not want any part of any trouble. I have sophomores and juniors who write inane things get far more credit than they deserve because one might have to deal with students who ‘feel’ they were snubbed by their Cs or B-s, and the would be within their rights to effectively demand their grades be raised. That is, there would be a review, and admin would encourage us to raise the grade to nip the matter at bud.


          1. “Self-esteem, as I have seen it, amounts to people shifting verbal markers of identity or description — like race/colour of skin, body shape, ethnicity, social class, disabilities et al — instead of working at removing the actual stigma.”

            -And you are seriously telling me you are 26? 🙂

            “One can no longer publicly say ‘My doctor said I must lose weight to be healthier’ without the very real possibility of someone jumping up and calling the poor chap all sorts of names for ‘fat shaming’ his patients and damaging their self-esteem.”

            -Very true. My doctor said that to me and when I shared that with a colleague she immediately tried to support me by saying he is a jerk. He isn’t a jerk, though, he just stated an obvious medical fact: high blood pressure can be brought down by weight loss. Why was I supposed to be offended by this??


      2. My 4-year-old kid participated in a tee ball team where scores were not kept and there were no winners or losers; basically it was just for the kids to play and have fun. The kids liked it better than the “competitive team” they played on the next year…not because there were losers, but because the adults were crazed and would shout obscenities if a five-year-old kid made a mistake.


        1. I know what you mean! My sister played chess when she was a kid and she dropped out because – as much as she loved chess – she didn’t want to deal with the endless bullying of the coaches and the drama of other kids who were pushed by their controlling parents. One of my sister’s competitors, a little girl, was so terrified of her father that she tried to bribe my sister into losing the game to her. 😦

          Children’s athletics or creative pursuits should NEVER be competitive, in my opinion. (I’m talking about small kids, not teenagers here.)


        2. Agreed – age appropriate expectations are essential. When I coached T-ball, I considered it a victory if we could get all the kids pointing in the right direction at the same time.

          Put your kid into an obscure sport – a friend of mine coached basketball (which was obscure in Canada – we know Hockey & baseball) and the parents, because they didn’t know anything about the sport, were the most relaxed and helpful parents he ever had. Swore he would never go back to coaching baseball. And I can understand it. It’s hard when everyone is an ‘expert’.


        3. This is alarming. When we were at school, nothing except track and field events on the annual sports day were competitive. That one needs a new concept (self-esteem) to patch a broken system (extreme competitiveness for very young children) illustrates the point I was making. We don’t need new innovations always. Sometimes, what we really need is some serious repair work.


  2. 60 minutes ran several segments regarding this issue. I think one of the examples was teachers basically telling African American children that they all descended from Pharaohs, etc., to help them feel special and good about themselves.


    1. As somebody whose ancestors were slaves and were only liberated 4 years before African slaves in this country, I would find it offensive if somebody told me I descended from kings and queens and if my history were vitiated in such a way.

      Surely, this must be an isolated initiative of one unintelligent person.


      1. “Surely, this must be an isolated initiative of one unintelligent person.”

        I can’t say how isolated it was or not. If I recollect it was at a school (elementary), so it was implemented in the classroom. All of the other particulars I don’t remember.


    2. I entered my email incorrectly 🙂 Sorry about that.

      I don’t know if it’s an ‘official’ program – much more of an attempt to change the culture.


  3. This movement indeed exists, and it had a noble goal – to be more careful with kids’ self-esteem and to avoid situations (which all probably have seen in the movies about old ages, if not in real life) when some kids are branded by schools as perpetual losers and idiots, which causes kids to lose faith in themselves and indeed become perpetual losers. However, as for any mass movement, this one has its share of idiots and its share of cowards who are too afraid to oppose the idiots and offer a balanced perspective instead. Especially in a litigation-happy society.


  4. I find it hard to believe US has this problem. In today’s job market and rising / very high university costs (for students) , one has to be blind to think everybody’s situation is the same, especially poor students can’t believe the lie.


    1. I’m all for abolishing grades. They’re not relevant. The teacher knows whether the students ‘get it’. To often, I see students pursuing an “A”, rather than actually learning (which includes understanding, not just remembering) the material. Grading encourages memorization & regurgitation, not learning. In my never be humble opinion.

      And the use of final exams (worth 100% of the grade – which was the standard while I was in university) to judge competency is inefficient. Sometimes, you just have a bad day.

      I’ve been told by more than one person that I’m the best accountant they have ever worked with. Yet, I still failed my exam. Why? Because I’m incompetent? Possibly, but the 10 years of work history don’t support that conclusion. Perhaps it’s because I had been working 80+hrs/wk for months, and had just found out on exam day that the corporation I worked for was in fact going to close the facility where I was the Controller. Perhaps, my mind was not as focused that day as it ought to have been.


      1. “And the use of final exams (worth 100% of the grade – which was the standard while I was in university) to judge competency is inefficient. ”

        -Such exams rae, indeed, ridiculous. In my teaching, I assign a lot of points for daily participation. Even if a person did really bad on the final exam but participated actively during class meetings, they will never fail the course.

        There is, however, a huge difference between teaching kids and teaching adults. I firmly believe that kids need discipline, structure and hierarchy. grades are crucial in establishing all these.


        1. Grades have their place and their use – the danger is where the grades become more important than the learning. Or life.


        2. This reminds me of your comments earlier about students wanting to know, “the right opinion”. It’s because they want to get the best grade (believing, based on their previous experience), that repeating the teachers own stance on issues is the surest way to get a good grade. They don’t have to believe it, or even understand it. As long as it agrees with your worldview, they’ll get a good grade.


          1. I know. I just spent 15 minutes in class promising that on the exam we are writing on Monday it is absolutely OK to express their own opinions. That’s actually the only thing I want out of them: to express their opinions. They kept disbelieving me, though. “Are you completely sure I can disagree with what you said about this subject?” one student kept repeating. “Like 100% sure?”

            This just makes me sad. I keep saying, “Don’t tell me what my opinion about this issue is. I am well aware of my opinion. Tell me yours!” But they keep finding this very hard to believe.


      2. I think you should still have grades, but base them on far more than test results (and this is coming from someone who does extraordinarily well on tests).

        When I was in nursing school, some of the better students on the clinical side were the worst on the test/lecture side. They could use what we learned intuitively with patients but couldn’t seem to reason out stuff on the tests.

        Those who couldn’t pass the tests couldn’t be nurses, though. After having yet another friend fail, I started a study group with the students I knew were struggling, plus a couple more who wanted to be in on a study group. The struggling students were asked in advance by me to present what we’d learned in class during the group. When asking them, I remarked on their good clinical skills and asked them to relate that to lecture.

        It worked well enough that the four of them got through the remaining classes and passed the NCLEX.

        Was it the boost to self esteem, the extra work, or trying to tie the clinical/test sides together? I couldn’t say, but all four women did say (later, and at different times) that they were amazed I thought highly enough of their skills to ask them teach the rest of us.


  5. As I understand it, part of the original ethos of the self-esteem movement was to push back against the the persistent undercurrent in US culture that says being richer, cleverer, faster, more influential means that you are ‘better’ than those who do not score so highly and therefore you have more worth, more validity as a person. The idea was to look at achievement more holistically – rather than ‘you got more marks than x person’ to say ‘you achieved your personal best,’ or you ‘beat your target score’. I think there’s definitely something to that.
    That said, I’ve seen it used as an assumed shortcut to reducing hostility between kids; if there’s no winners and no loser, surely the kiddies will play nicely and we won’t have any aggression or fighting or anything and no-one will get their feelings hurt because they weren’t the winner! Yeah, right.


      1. Pretty much. I was involved with a US summer camp for several summers, and the camp applied non-competitive principles where possible; almost everything competitive was a team effort and only for fun, strictly no prizes.
        My fellow British counsellors were a bit bemused by this; a few of us wondered if the camp had something against girls being competitive and aggressive, (it was an all girls camp – not religious or I’d never have worked there!). However, we understood pretty quickly when we realised that the vast majority of the kids seemed to have no concept of just enjoying things – trying your hardest purely for the fun of producing your personal best was an alien concept. They kept trying to negotiate things like extra lights time for the winners, or punishments like running twice round the field for the losers. It was frankly a bit creepy. Not that British kids won’t form into factions like that if you employ divide & conquer tactics, but generally they’re a bit more open to the concept of playing football etc for the fun of it rather than to score goals.


    1. This is also the basic paradigm of the fundamentalist Xtian movement: You are a horrible, evil, worthless person. You are so unbelieveably lucky that God sent Jesus to die for your sorry ass and take the blame for your hopless failings. It seems to be the only way that they can keep their membership growing and it is profoundly harmful.


  6. My elementary school “clustered” kids into classes on the basis of their approximate level of understanding. Every year, they debated mixing the classes so that, should the kids realize they were clustered by ability, nobody’s feelings would be hurt. It also refused – in defiance of state law – to have any gifted and talented (ie, advanced students) program, because of the idea that everybody is gifted in his or her own way. That’s what the self-esteem thing is about.
    It also has something to do with the post on overachievers who don’t do well later in life. From kindergarten, we were taught constantly that we can do everything we set our minds to, and so on and so forth. Which is why so many of us blindly enter colleges…we’ve been taught our entire lives to chase excellence, without regard for the idea that some things other than pure academic and financial success could be excellent.


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