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Striking a Healthy Balance

by Pack, Mary C., Benge, Cindy, et al


THANK YOU FOR YOUR ARTICLE ABOUT inflated self-esteem in our children ("You're OK, I'm Terrific: 'Self-Esteem' Backfires," SOCIETY, July 13). As a veteran teacher, I have met with many disapproving glances when I've questioned all the emphasis on "me." If you criticize a child or, worse yet, allow failure, you are labeled "insensitive" by your peers and "mean" by the students. My students experience success in my class, but they also experience failure. I help them learn to deal with both--a life lesson, in my estimation. When I hear from students many years after they were in my class, they voice their appreciation for the way they were treated and taught.


SOME EDUCATORS LIKE MYSELF AND MANY of my colleagues aren't surprised to hear that unjustly inflating a child's self-esteem can be just as dangerous as deflating it. We have steadfastly resisted overpraise in the classroom despite pressure from parents, administrators, educational and child psychologists and even our Texas state education agency to do so. Texas teachers have an added incentive to lavish praise on students because our state evaluation instrument allows for deduction of points for failing to praise "sufficiently" while offering exceptional-quality bonus points for what many of us consider superfluous praise. Perhaps, with all the recent schoolyard carnage, educators and psychologists will think twice before helping kids to "develop unrealistic opinions of themselves."


SOME MAY BE SURPRISED TO READ THAT the "self-esteem" movement has backfired, but not most college teachers. We encounter the products of the movement in our classrooms, where in response to honest critiques of their work, most of my students display not aggression but, even sadder, acceptance of their incompetence. The number of my students who start a conversation by saying "I'm no good at . . ." or "I can't do . . ." is shocking. It is quite possible to graduate from high school in the United States today with a 3.0 average and have done virtually no homework. Students have been praised and rewarded with gold stars, pizzas and good grades, but they have rarely, if ever, had the experience of doing a difficult job well. They've known all along that it is a fraud. The result is the reverse of the supposed objective of the self-esteem movement: a feeling of stupidity and incompetence that far exceeds reality. There is such a thing as abusive criticism and ego destruction, and students who really try hard and still do not do well need to know they are still good people. But students need to experience the joy of a tough job well done.


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