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Are you creating little monsters?

Building children's confidence has benefits, but too much of a good thing is dangerous, says Dr Aric Sigman

Building children's confidence has benefits, but too much of a good thing is dangerous, says Dr Aric Sigman

In addition to delivering an education, today's teachers are increasingly expected to deliver high self-esteem to the children in their care. It is assumed that those with high self-regard will, for example, perform better in school and be less likely to bully other pupils. And so self-esteem is referred to as something that can be taught by teachers and learned by pupils. Moreover, it is believed that raising it can only be a good thing. But there are now grave reservations about our wholehearted embrace of self-esteem.

Psychometric measures of narcissism and self-esteem in young people have risen steadily since the early 1980s. A national study of 16,475 college students in the US concluded that today's young people are more narcissistic and self-centred than their predecessors. The researchers attribute the phenomenon to the "self-esteem movement" that emerged in the 1980s, concluding that the effort to build self-confidence has gone too far.

Other research agrees. A meta-analysis of 72 studies on empathy over 30 years, involving almost 14,000 university students, offers little flattery: "College kids today are about 40 per cent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago."

Research into high self- esteem is now finding that there are good and bad forms. A study in the Journal of Personality found that "for those in which (self-esteem) is fragile and shallow, it's no better than having low self-esteem". It is now becoming clear that, of the multiple forms of high self-esteem, only some consistently relate to positive psychological functioning.

High self-esteem in schoolchildren does not produce better grades. It seems, if anything, that it is the other way round: getting good grades leads to higher self-esteem. In fact, a study at Virginia Commonwealth University found that university students with mediocre grades who received frequent self-esteem boosts from their lecturers ended up performing worse in their final exams than students who were told to bite the bullet and try harder.

It has often been assumed that low self-esteem is more likely to be a cause of violence, yet it is found that violent people often think rather highly of themselves. People with high self- esteem are likely to respond aggressively when their inflated view of themselves is threatened by criticism or perceived insult, or when someone obstructs their need for gratification.

Violent criminals, who we have been told are "acting out" their low self-esteem, actually have the highest scores on a personality scale of narcissism. And high self-esteem has been linked to bullying. The researcher Roy Baumeister says that, "according to most of the studies that have been done, it is simply untrue that beneath the surface of every obnoxious bully is an unhappy, self-hating child in need of sympathy and praise".

The American Psychological Association commissioned Dr Baumeister and other experts to assess the benefits of high self-esteem. Dr Baumeister's conclusion was unequivocal. "My recommendation is this: forget about self- esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline. Recent work suggests this would be good for the individual and good for society - and might even be able to fill some of those promises that self-esteem once made but could not keep."

Enhancing self-esteem has often focused on expressing feelings and emotions without, at the same time, demanding self-discipline and self-control. Other researchers now also believe that perseverance, resilience and reality-testing are much better predictors of life fulfilment and success than self-esteem.

Children who are repeatedly told that there is little about themselves that demands improvement are being helped to develop a distorted, socially unviable sense of self. On the other hand, parents and teachers who set realistically high expectations, criticise when it is warranted and are intolerant of egotistical behaviour and values are doing children - and the rest of us - a great favour.

Healthy self-esteem is not developed through contrived platitudes but through experience; it is a by-product of living in a constructive way. Instead of trying to raise it directly, it is better to focus elsewhere (such as on what a child does) and enable self-esteem to rise as a side effect. Most importantly, self-esteem should not be outsourced to teachers; it is primarily the responsibility of parents.

The next time we hear self-esteem-boosting catchphrases such as "Because I'm worth it", we should question why we hold self-esteem in such high esteem.

Dr Aric Sigman is a fellow of the Society of Biology and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. More information on the studies mentioned here can be found in his book The Spoilt Generation (Piatkus, 2009).

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