Whenever I talk on the subject of self-esteem and how the research strongly suggests that people with high regard for themselves have correspondingly low regard for others, and that high self-esteem is highly associated with antisocial behavior like bullying, people become understandably perplexed. After all, the notion that a state of high self-esteem is desirable has become as “American” as apple pie.
The inevitable rebuttal: “But John, I want my child to possess self-confidence.”
Ah, but the research finds that high self-esteem is associated with fear of failure. The child who has been praised indiscriminately by parents and teachers — which has been the unfortunate lot of many kids over the past forty or so years — may tend to shy away from an unfamiliar challenge. On the other hand, he may overestimate his abilities and often end up failing, which is why the research also finds that people with high self-esteem are especially prone to depression. In other words, depression is not necessarily the consequence of having too little self-esteem, but rather having too much.
Teachers were told that constant praise would elevate academic performance, but social scientists have found that people with high self-esteem consistently underperform. They believe anything they do is worthy of merit; therefore, they tend not to put forth their best efforts. It is worth mentioning that as praise in schools has gone up, test scores have gone down.
And so, and once again, we discover that there is nothing new under the sun. The traditional ideal of humility and modesty appears to be the most functional state of self-regard. That should humble folks who believe that new ideas are better than old ones (but it won’t).
History is replete with humble and modest people who accomplished great things. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are two outstanding examples. Their accomplishments were not the result of thinking highly of themselves, but of dedication to causes much larger than themselves.
I will propose that courage, not self-confidence, is what parents should be attempting to help their children develop. The research strongly suggests that self-confident people either are (a) hesitant to take on challenges unless they believe they are going to succeed, (b) so sure of succeeding that they foolishly expose themselves and others to high-risk situations. By all accounts, George Armstrong Custer possessed very high self-esteem.
Courage, on the other hand, is the willingness to take on a task even if one knows he or she may not succeed. It is the willingness to fight the good fight even when the odds are stacked against you. These are people who make great sacrifices for noble causes. Think Martin Luther King.
America needs more Martins. Unfortunately, we appear to be raising lots of Custers.