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The Myth of Self-esteem

There’s a disturbing trend emerging from our school system colleagues in the US that I think we should be attentive to.

To summarise we’re seeing a first-in-history decline in broad academic standards and test scores. But we’re also seeing a steady improvement in student self-esteem scales.

In essence, American kids think they’re awesome … but they’re not.

I contend that the rise in self-esteem is due to a warped view of what self-esteem is and does. Self-esteem differs from other qualities, like resilience, in that it’s a commodity you can have both too little and too much of.

Overinflated measures of self-esteem occur when students are constantly reminded of banal platitudes that:

  • “You’re amazing, no matter what.”
  • “You should be proud of yourself.”
  • “You’re special.”

… when they haven’t done anything amazing, special, or to be proud of.

Our students don’t need to attach their self-esteem to existence. They aren’t incredible for merely drawing breath. This exacerbates an unhealthy level of self-esteem that’s too high.

We need students to attach their self-esteem to the effort, struggle, progress and propensity to care for others.

If we can do that, we’ll foster a “second bear” level of desirable self-esteem for every kid. Not too little, not too much … but juuuust right.

These are kids who will understand that self-esteem isn’t owed to them but is something they have the incredible opportunity to earn with just a little effort.

Our job is to present them with the right level of risk, challenge and opportunity to spend that effort.

Keep fighting that good fight,


PS. I’ll be in Cairns in August if you’re in QLD and missed my Brisbane events. You can register for Restorative Classrooms, Strong Classrooms on 15 August here or The Art of School Culture Leadership on 16 August here.

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