The Self Esteem Debate

I recently came across two articles, written less than a week apart (and apparently unbeknownst to each of the authors) with a distinctly similar slant toward the notion of Self-Esteem which is evident from the titles alone; the first referring to Self-Esteem as a ‘Craze’ and the second more directly as a ‘Con’. The foundation of each piece is rooted in the interesting story of John Vasconcellos, a California state legislator who in the 1980s lobbied in support of initiatives to promote Self-Esteem - which he believed “could reduce crime, teen pregnancy and a host of other social ills – even pollution”. Needless to say, his thesis was somewhat overreaching and combined with the fact that he apparently acquired program funding by misrepresenting his research findings, his story becomes easy fodder for dismissive articles that seem bent on ignoring a more current and balanced approach to the importance of Self-Esteem, especially amongst adolescents.

Its easy to pick out the most ridiculous examples of any ideology, as both authors did, to support a specific viewpoint. Schools using mauve instead of red pens to mark student errors, sports medals for just showing up, grade inflation – all extreme, and some outdated, examples (trust me, I see plenty of red ink on my kids’ papers!). Or to quote specific research – Jean Twenge, a pshychologist at San Diego State University, shows up in both articles and for good reason. Her book, Generation Me, argues the self-esteem movement “may explain why they (millennials) score higher in measures of narcissistic personality traits”. Full disclosure here – I was so frustrated by much of the research methodology and the resulting assumptions made in this book that I only got half-way through.

What I find most disheartening about articles like this is their complete lack of telling a balanced story. Self Esteem isn’t about teaching our kids that they are perfect, it is about teaching them to accept themselves without judgement, their bodies without comparison, their accomplishments without shame and their failures without giving up.

The line I think I find most offensive is in the NYMag article which mockingly states “Many people STILL believe that fostering a sense of self-esteem is just about the most important thing one can do, mental health-wise”. You can’t see it because Facebook does not allow formatting, but the ‘still’ is italicized, as in “can you believe it??” Well, yes actually I can.

True, mental health is a complex issue and it would be incorrect to assign any one factor as the leading cause across the spectrum, however, the dismissive way in which this line is written completely devalues the importance of self-esteem under any scenario. Self-Esteem will not cure all the world’s problems, but the discussion is much more nuanced than the one presented in these articles.

According to the World Health Organization, “depression is a common mental illness with more than 300 million people affected. At its worse, depression can lead to suicide which is the second leading cause of death in 15-29 year olds. And while depression results from a complex interaction of social, psychological and biological factors….prevention programs have been shown to reduce depression. Effective community approaches to prevent depression include school-based programmes to enhance a pattern of positive thinking in children and adolescents”.

Evidence of the critical role that self-esteem plays in our youth can be found in numerous studies, including one done by the Kids Help Phone in my own country, which found:

“46% - Nearly half of all teens in Canada report that they experience body or self-image problems, making it the most prevalent concern among teens today. A body or self-image problem is defined in our survey as the self-perception of not measuring up to what friends, family or society expect, or the feeling of inadequacy when compared to others…..Of teens who reported seriously considering suicide, 75% also experienced body or self image problems.”

But the truth is, you only have to open your eyes to see how the world is changing and the increased pressure that kids are under today to achieve perfection - physically, academically and socially. So it seems to me a strange time to disparage a conversation that is needed more than ever.