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Dare we put the boot in?

The obsession with self-esteem must not be allowed to mask the need for character. Sometimes we need a blast of the hairdryer, says Stuart Waiton

WAS shocked by some of the reactions to the Alex Ferguson boot-kicking episode. One of Scotland's best known sporting characters and probably the best manager in the history of British football was denounced by a number of Scottish pundits for kicking a football boot in anger, which accidentally struck David Beckham on the head.

Ferguson's old-fashioned assertive and macho character was attacked by some that sympathised, indeed empathised, with a "new man" like Beckham. Not only had Ferguson drawn blood, but the England captain's self-esteem could have been undermined.

Self-esteem, a term rarely used just 10 years ago, can today be found everywhere. Indeed it appears to be the cause of, and solution to, almost every social and personal problem.

Read any government report on a social issue and the problem of low self-esteem is always present. Within education, self-esteem is likewise becoming an increasingly central aspect of teaching and a key to the way schools relate to children. But what is self-esteem? One way to look at this question is to compare a person with self-esteem and a person with the less fashionable attribute (like Sir Alex) of having character.

For many, the two may be indistinguishable but they are in fact opposites.

The Oxford Compact English Dictionary defines them as follows: self-esteem - a good opinion of oneself; character - the collective qualities or characteristics, both mental and moral, that distinguish a person or thing.

A moral strength. Reputation.

Self-esteem is about how you feel; having character is more about what you do or have done. Put two pupils with character in a room and you may get a clash of personalities, a strong argument or a vigorous and passionate agreement, possibly even a fight and a boot in the face. Whatever happens, you would expect both parties to walk out of the room, perhaps a little bruised, but with their "character" intact.

Put two pupils with self-esteem in a room and they would both expect the other to be aware of and tolerant of one another. Respect would be mutually given and no conflict would hopefully occur. A clash of ideas or a strong challenge by either party would be seen as undermining the other's self-esteem and could lead to the need for intervention from a teacher.

Following any significant challenge by either party, it would be assumed that the self-esteem of one or both pupils (like Beckham) would be damaged.

Unlike self-esteem, character is often acquired by facing difficult situations and dealing with them one way or another. For children these situations are often created by adults, who recognise that pushing a child is important for their development. Unfortunately, in today's self-esteem obsessed times, pushing a child or being critical is tantamount to child abuse.

It was recently observed that school report cards had become "unrelentingly positive". Rather than schools being challenging, critical institutions, teachers are tending to avoid criticism lest it undermine pupils'


A friend of mine who teaches in the west of Scotland has often joked about the "positive box" he has to fill out in a report card. Parents take note - if this box reads "good attendance", it means the teacher has nothing positive to say.

Perhaps we should note that the so-called "sensitive" Mr Beckham, despite some of the low expectations of him, had enough character to take it on the chin and still do the business on the pitch.

Stuart Waiton is a director of the youth research group This is the first in an occasional series of articles.

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