Where vanity is not fair

Raising children's self-esteem by praising them unnecessarily can be detrimental in their later life, recent research shows. Neil Munro finds out about the 'me-centred' generation

Beware the emphasis on self-esteem, almost now a mantra in Scottish schools.

That is the message from the Glasgow-based Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, following significant American research. The centre is warning parents, teachers and those working with young people not to follow in America's footsteps by producing young people who cannot handle criticism.

The American self-esteem movement is said to have had a considerable influence on how young people are treated both at home and at school, and psychologists are warning that this is leading to the creation of a "me-centred" generation who are materialistic, lonely and vulnerable to depression and anxiety.

They are also much more likely to be cynical and blame other people for their problems.

Carol Craig, chief executive of the Glasgow centre, commented: "For some children, confidence is still an issue. But we don't want to go to the other end of the spectrum and give lots of praise which is patronising and undeserved."

In the wake of this research, and other research on self-esteem, the centre has drawn up guidance for parents, which it is publishing on its website (www.centreforconfidence.co.uk).

The research that has spurred the centre into action has been carried out by Jean Twenge from the University of San Diego. Her work was published in the United States earlier this year in a book called Generation Me. Dr Twenge outlined her findings in a telephone lecture for the centre. From yesterday, anyone can listen to the lecture on the centre's website.

She has examined research studies carried out from the mid-1950s in the US on the attitudes and personality characteristics of children and young people. Her sample, based on the responses of 1.3 million individuals, illustrates that there have been huge shifts in attitudes during this time.

The magnitude of these changes can be seen in the fact that narcissism used to be a fairly uncommon characteristic but, in 2005-06, two thirds of college students across 85 studies scored higher than average on narcissistic personality traits.

The average young person in the States also scores higher on anxiety than the average child psychiatric patient in the 1950s.

Dr Twenge quotes research which shows that employers in America do not think this "entitlement generation" makes good employees. They are said to expect instant success for very little effort and have been so protected from criticism that they are "thin-skinned" and don't like to be corrected.

She mainly attributes these trends to the influence that the American self-esteem movement has on the way that parents and teachers interact with children, in particular, making them the centre of attention, telling young people that the most important thing is love for yourself, and protecting them from criticism.

The latest research adds considerable weight to the "positive psychology"

movement, led in the US by Martin Seligman. He will take his message that increasing children's resilience and optimism will pay greater dividends than self-esteem to a conference in Edinburgh on October 25.

Professor Seligman said this week that the self-esteem movement "by encouraging cheap success, has produced a generation of very expensive failures".

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