Building self-esteem in students– have we gone too far?

Are your children spoiled? Quite possibly.

Our nation- wide, well-intentioned “grow self-esteem in students” movement has gone too far. Before you hurl stones, let me preface this by saying I’m a teacher committed to building strong self-concepts in students,  especially body-conscious girls. And I don’t think praising students is bad.

But I think some praise is bad.

Some praise is downright destructive.

Jean  Twenge’s “Me Generation”

generation me narcissism
This TIME article  claims there are nearly  3 times as many narcissists in their 20s than in the  65 + crowd

As an undergraduate sociology student, I studied Generations X and Y and this led me to read Jean Twenge’s book, Generation Me: a book that cautions too much self-esteem building programs have led to a narcissistic Generation Y. According to Twenge, the emphasis on building self-esteem in schools  really began in the Sixties, with the “Free to Be You and Me” mentality. According to Twenge, the 1960’s mass project to build self-esteem in students destroyed people born between the early 1980s to early 2000s– the millenial generation.

Using psychology and social surveys, Twenge and her associates found that members of this so-called millennial generation are overall more “confident, entitled and assertive,” but, because they’re trapped in their little worlds—centered around themselves, of course— they’re “more miserable than ever before.”

Growing in popularity, Twenge’s research has been republished in her new book The Narcissim Epidemic. Here’s an illustration of generation Y narcissism in her words:

“On a reality TV show, a girl planning her Sweet Sixteen wants a major road blocked off so a marching band can precede her grand entrance on a red carpet. Five times as many Americans undergo plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures as ten years ago, and ordinary people hire fake paparazzi to follow them around to make them look famous. High school students physically attack classmates and post YouTube videos of the beatings to get attention. And for the past several years, Americans have been buying McMansions and expensive cars on credit they can’t afford.”

The real cause for all this madness, for Twenge, is epidemic narcissism:

“Although these seem like a random collection of current trends, all are rooted in a single underlying shift in American culture: the relentless rise of narcissism, a very positive and inflated view of self. Narcissists believe they are better than others, lack emotionally warm and caring relationships, constantly seek attention, and treasure material wealth and physical appearance”[see Source 1]

Is Twenge right? Are our students narcissists?

Hey look ma! It’s a picture of me…looking at me, looking at me, looking at me…

One reason we might be concerned about building too much self-esteem in students is that we might unintentionally build cold, unfeeling monsters— Twenge’s narcissists. But I’m unconvinced this is our  greatest fear. From my observation, my students are not a pack of in-it-for-myself-alone types, but caring, feeling individuals who, like most teenagers, are idealists. That my students overall “constantly seek attention, and treasure material wealth and physical appearance” is, however, undeniable.

You’re special– but do you have grit?

You need proof– let me tell you about the experiment I’ve run for the past three years. At the start of most classes, I take a student survey asking them about their ambitions. What have I learned? I’ve learned that most students believe themselves to be special. They see their future selves as being wildly successful–they are the future Bon Jovis,  the Freuds, the Obamas, the Trumps, the Spielbergs of our world. And what of their work ethic? I’ve learned that a scant few have the work ethic to achieve their goals, never mind an A average. The majority of my students have forgotten what Benjamin Franklin knew: “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

That hard work usually equals success, I think, should be taught in every classroom. I propose these mottoes for every student: Effort multiplies reward. Sweat equals success. Practice makes perfect. Struggle builds character.

Perhaps you disagree. Maybe our students are indeed so special that their success is certain. Maybe they are so special they should get praise without cause.

As for me, I think we’re off the train tracks.  Here’s how our self-esteem building efforts have backfired:

1)      Students may become suckers for recognition

When we praise students and make it seem like only when they are praised, and only when they do well, that they are valuable human beings, we create attention-seeking addicts. Witness the countless Facebook self-portraits and un-private lives lived for the fleeting pleasure of being “noticed” and “liked.” Wouldn’t it be better if our students didn’t care much about what others thought of them? Wouldn’t it be better if they introspected for self-worth rather than grasping hungrily outside?

2)      Students only value some things, forget others

When we praise students because they get a great mark, win the student election, score a touchdown, win a scholarship, we are doing a good thing. But do we praise students when they do good? For example, when was the last time we praised a student for helping someone who was bullied, for volunteering, for sharing their lunch? If we praise academic or extracurricular excellence alone, we send the message that only material and academic achievement matters. Do we believe that? If so, why do we believe that?

3)      Students can’t correct their mistakes and live in ignorance—

When we praise students for every little thing—even when they are wrong—we are being dishonest. Worse yet, we are ruining their chances in life. For example, some well-meaning teachers have taken self-esteem building to mean “don’t correct mistakes because it’ll discourage students.” I’ve heard of teachers not correcting papers full of serious punctuation and grammatical errors because they believed their students’ writing still had “flow”—whatever that is. If jonny rites like this he, wont be getting a good job don’t U think??

generation me y bunny
Our students do not have to be this bunny.

4)      Students are unprepared for the real world, complacent—

In school, everyone thinks you’re wonderful and you get easy As! Then you get your first job. You find it very disconcerting that nobody praises you without cause. You have to work for it. We should prepare students for this. We should also never give students the impression that they’re so perfect they can’t improve; everyone can improve, because we all have weaknesses.

So, what is the balance between building healthy self-esteem in students, and building narcissists, attention-seeking types, ruthless go-getters and unprepared “princes and princesses”? I’m not sure, but so far I follow these three rules:

1)        I will praise students for a job well done, but only if they deserve it.

2)       I will not praise students for a job poorly done or ignore mistakes.

3)       I will not praise students for academic achievements alone.

Doing all this, am I being too harsh? I think not. I’m trying to be a good teacher, as I understand it.

For more about the “Me Generation” phenomenon,  Isuggest you go to this article recently published in TIME: “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation” by Joel Stein

Or check out Source 1:Jean Twenge’s site

Like to read stuff like this? To sign up for email post updates from,go to the top right of the home page.