All this emphasis on self-esteem could be setting our kids up for a fall

By Jaimie Seaton

A couple of months ago my teenager auditioned for his first play, a musical. The night before the auditions, he practiced for hours while I showered him with praise and constructive criticism. When I dropped him off the next morning, I reminded him to be confident, and he eagerly jumped out of the car.

But when I picked him up that afternoon, he said that he had gotten nervous and botched the audition. His elation from the morning was replaced with humiliation and sadness, and I tried to assuage his pain, saying that he probably did better than he thought.

Later that evening, he received a text saying that he was being called back for the next round of auditions. He was up for one of the lead roles.

“I told you,” I kept repeating. “You need to believe in yourself.”

We spent the evening going over the songs, and by the time he went to bed I was sure he would prevail the next day.

“If you go in there and sing the song the way you did tonight, that part is yours,” I said. I believed it, but I also wanted to bolster his self-confidence.

He didn’t get the part. Instead, he was made understudy to a lead and given a few supporting roles. He was devastated, and considered dropping out of the play, but decided to stick with it. As he now practices the songs at home, he often chastises himself for not being more confident in the auditions, saying that if he had been, he might have a bigger role.

Interestingly, while he blames his lack of confidence for losing the part, he also says that I built him up too much by saying that he was a shoo-in. He says I should have lowered his expectations by reminding him that other kids had more experience auditioning.

The same week he said this, I attended a conference at Dartmouth College and heard a presentation by Jean M. Twenge, author of “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before.”

Twenge catalogued popular advice parents have been giving their children since my generation (Generation X) was coming up. She rapidly listed the cliches: believe in yourself, love yourself, anything is possible, just be yourself, you can be anything you want, never give up on your dreams, you are special.

Twenge said her mother, who grew up in the 1950s, probably didn’t hear these things. In 2012, Twenge and her colleagues looked at 5 million American books published from 1960 to 2008, searching for 20 words and phrases related to the cliches. They found that phrases such as “love yourself” didn’t appear much until the 1970s, and then the usage rose, peaking in the past 15 years.

The 1972 hit record “Free to Be You and Me” embodied the “love yourself” message, and was a favorite in my childhood home. Born of the civil rights and women’s movements, the album encouraged individuality and tolerance, and was a watershed in the positive-self movement.

The problem, Twenge told me in a recent conversation, is that the pendulum has swung too far, leading to the era of participation trophies and elementary school teachers hesitating to correct students because it might harm their self-esteem.

“One of our most closely held beliefs in America today is that self-esteem is really, really important,” Twenge said during her presentation. “And not just self-esteem or confidence, but overconfidence.”

Research, however, shows that self-esteem doesn’t help a person succeed, Twenge said. Although there is a positive correlation between self-esteem and grades, outside factors such as coming from a stable home erase much of that correlation.

“This idea that you are going to build up self-esteem and it will lead to good things, if it doesn’t have a basis, it doesn’t work that way. That puts the cart before the horse,” Twenge told me.

She cited research that found that in the United States, the ethnic group with the lowest self-esteem is Asian Americans, which also is the group with the strongest academic performance. Even allowing for the cultural component, Twenge said that the finding belies the idea that self-confidence is the key to success.

“Clearly, it’s not. Self-esteem can cause problems if it’s not based in reality,” she said.

In her presentation and in our discussion, Twenge cited research showing that compared to previous generations, recent college students are significantly more likely to view themselves as above average on a number of attributes (social and intellectual self-confidence, and writing, public speaking and leadership abilities among them). Interestingly, self-evaluations for emotional and physical health and spirituality decreased. Over the same period, high school grades have gone up while the percentage of students who do 10 or more hours of homework per week has gone down. Lastly, recent graduates are much more likely to expect to earn a graduate degree and work as a professional by age 30, but the number who actually do so has remained unchanged.

“The culture has shifted to emphasize having very high expectations, and to tell our kids they can be anything they want to be,” Twenge said. “The problem with this advice is it’s not just confidence, it’s overconfidence; it’s not just self-focused, it’s delusional. The phrase ‘you can be anything you want to be’ is just not true. It makes it sound like for every child, every single goal is achievable, and it’s not the way the world works.”

She added that aiming high can be a good motivator, but the huge gap between expectations and reality can be problematic.

Perhaps I should have given my son encouragement that allowed for different outcomes. Twenge, who has three daughters, advises parents to be specific; to praise effort instead of making a blanket statement about ability; and to focus on what the child does and the performance rather than what the child is and the outcome.

“Say, ‘I see you worked hard on that’ rather than ‘you are so talented,’ or ‘so smart.’ Say, ‘I know you can swim really fast because I saw you do it the other day,’ ” she said. “It’s important to emphasize self-efficacy — knowing you can do something — versus self-esteem — thinking you are great.”

Twenge called the difference between the two one of the common pitfalls of modern parenting. The benefit of emphasizing self-efficacy is that the child is focused on what they are doing. If they fail, they can work to do better next time.

“That’s the important thing,” Twenge said. “Kids learn from failure, failure isn’t bad. Adults learn from failure, too.”

Jaimie Seaton is a freelance writer and journalist. She tweets @JaimieSeaton.

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