Self-esteem Movement Hurts, Not Helps

Here, take one.

Here, take one. Everyone gets a "self-esteem star."

You are so cute. The picture is so creative. Even though you didn’t answer the question, your essay was so well written. That dress makes you look pretty. You have a great deal of potential. You are a winner. You are the best in your class. Here’s your trophy. Don’t forget your ribbon.

The value of the phrases above continues to erode as they are overused and misappropriated. What started at as a well-intentioned effort to instill the young with self-confidence is turning into mass coddling all the way through high school and beyond.

We are no longer teaching people to overcome adversity and strive for excellence. We are teaching them to avoid the obstructions in their path and to accept mediocrity. We used to instruct the young in how to climb the wall; now we just tell them to go around it or, better yet, we build them stairs!

A case in point is the recent June graduation of students at Niagara Falls High School in Niagara Falls,  NY. The high school class of 2009 featured not one, but 18, valedictorians. According to The Buffalo News, school officials decided to do away with class rankings and valedictorians out of a sense of “fairness.” (1)

One student, Kelly O’Brien, had set her sights on earning the top spot. She was rightly disappointed when she found out there was not going to be one. O’Brien wanted to climb the wall, but misguided adults had turned the wall into a platform for 18, mounted by steps.

How “fair” was that? Do O’Brien and the others striving for the top agree it was “fair” to them? Are we now satisfied with a tie?

I know I am not satisfied with that. I do not care if you crush me; I still want you to play me. I want you to give it all you’ve got. I do not want mercy. I want a battle. If I lose, so be it, but I will hold my head up, knowing I fought the fight. I was there. I dripped sweat. I lost blood. I gave it my all. No one can take that away from me, unless they suddenly say that everything will end in a tie as it now does in Niagara Falls.

We are getting rid of honors in the pursuit of “equality.” We are eliminating victory in the name of “self-esteem.” In so doing, we are perpetrating an injustice against the young. We are sending them into a hard, cold world after ripping out their spines.

I have two young boys. The oldest will be three in September and the youngest two at the end of November. Of course, I coddle them. Of course, I tell them their artwork is wonderful. Of course, I tell them how smart, strong, creative and awesome they are. I tell them all the time. For their place in life right now, I am telling them the truth.

When it is no longer the truth, I will no longer tell them. If they are sculpting the figure of a woman for a high school art class and it looks like the return of The Blob, I am going to tell them to do it again. If they write a paper and I believe they could do better, I will say so.

I will not tell them lies. I will not bolster their “self-esteem” at the expense of their ability. I will expect them to climb the wall and, because I expect it, they will climb it.

The “self-esteem movement” started out at the elementary level and that is where it should stay. Pass out trophies to everyone. Give everyone a blue ribbon. Put a star next to all their names on the wall. Up to the fifth or sixth grade, that is fine.

After that, it is time to start telling them the truth. It is time to start allowing them to lose. It is time to start letting them fail. It is in losing, we learn to fight harder to win. It is in failing, we learn to try again and again until we get it right. Losing and failing teach us a valuable lesson. They teach us to climb the wall.

Losers should not get trophies. Failures should not get accolades. Stages should not be crowded with valedictorians.

The greatest teacher I ever had in my life was Avis Meyer in the Communications Department at Saint Louis University. He told the greatest stories. He also never gave out A’s. It was so bad that all the students began to call him Avis “B” Meyer, because that was the highest grade you could receive from him.

He assigned a big paper in one of his classes. I worked so hard for him. I gave it my all. I spent weeks on that paper. I knew it was good. I thought I had it. The day Avis handed the paper back to me was one of the greatest days of my life. In blood red ink, Avis had scrolled a giant A- at the top of my paper. Yes, there was a minus, but still, Avis “B” Meyer had given me an A! I had climbed the wall and it felt good!

We need to push the young to do better. We need to make them dig down deep inside themselves and find the strength to carry on. We need to make them work for it. We need to make them earn it.

We need to build a wall and make them climb it. It is in the climbing that they will find the strength within themselves. It is in the climbing that they will grow. It is in the climbing that they will become the best that they can be. We need to get our trophies, ribbons, stars and false honors out of their way.


Thanks to Steve Auckly for his suggestion about the Niagara Falls graduation, which led to the writing of this column.


18 responses to “Self-esteem Movement Hurts, Not Helps

  1. Hmm, I think 5th or 6th grade is a little late. When our children were about 4, we started teaching that it was ok to lose. We taught them that we can’t be good at everything but we can certainly try harder.

    • Vantage Point Productions


      I think that is awesome. I haven’t really set a year yet to teach our sons these lessons, but that might be a good age for us, too. The boys are smart. They will get it.

      I was just sort of throwing 5th or 6th grade out there, because that is before I get them in school and, therefore, prior to my need to worry about them! I teach 7th and 8th graders, and I just try not to coddle them like this. I think because of that, I earn their respect. They know I’m going to talk to them straight and give them the respect they deserve as young adults.

      They know when they are being fed another line of crap. They respect you when you don’t try to do it and you tell them the truth instead.


  2. John,

    This article is so true…it drives me crazy everyday;the sense of entitlement that some feel just for filling a seat in a classroom.

    Great article!

    • Vantage Point Productions

      C. Paul,

      Thank you for your response and thanks for reading the article. As other people have said in their comments, this “sense of entitlement” is spreading throughout our society. I’m afraid that is true and we need to fight it back somehow. Take care.


  3. Two thumbs up (:

  4. walter harrison

    I played quite a few sports in highschool. In each sport there always some coach telling me I could do better, it did not matter how many trophies or medals I won. In a way that early training shaped my life, to always push myself, and not quit. It was in american wedding that one of the actors stated: “we do not quit at half time.” Though that line cracked me up, it is still true. Vince Lambardi stated that a player starts playing from the bottoms of his soles. That where it starts and he then plays with everything he has got. His heart, his mind and his soul. That was from his winning is not a sometime thing. I agree that without pushing people to keep them motivated then we develop into a world of slackers.

    • Vantage Point Productions


      Thank you for your response. I am in complete agreement with you.

      Give me someone who might not be the best, but gives it all they got over a talented person who just gets by any day! For me, the effort does mean a lot.

      There are some people for whom things come easy and some of these people do not give it their all, yet they still are near the top. There is nothing to respect in that.

      I’m with the strivers. The one’s who push themselves to the limit to make it. The one’s whose determination pushes their talent forward. That is what I like to see.

      Take care, Walter.


  5. All I have to say is AMEN. If we create only winners, then they will never learn about the pride associated with true winning after multiple losses in a sport, a contest, and in real life. As a teacher, I am proud to say that I agree with everything you’ve said. I do not fear my students, my students’ parents, or even my administrators in saying my thoughts. I believe that society does coddle its children too much, so I will NOT do it in my home, my classroom, or even with my friends’ children.

    People need to experience failure so that they do, indeed, learn to feel pride for their individual successes. Without failure in the beginnings, there can never be pride in the end.

    • Vantage Point Productions

      Ms. Rice,

      So well said, as always. I love your close. Powerful stuff.

      That is exactly right. We have to prepare young people for the real world. The real world is full of mistakes, full of loss. We are doing them a disservice if we hide that from them. They need to learn it is in our mistakes we find greatness.


  6. Whoa. This is so weird. I mean, having a teacher say this publicly. I know a couple of others who talk like this in public, too. but they’re always wondering if it’ll cost them their jobs.

    Personally, I’d say 5th or 6th grade is too late to still be doing this, at least full bore. But otherwise, RIGHT ON! If you help the kids accomplish something, and realize they are growing, learning, doing new things, doing what they’re capable of doing, they’ll have plenty of self-esteem. All they *really* get from the current approach are a false sense of security and an attitude of entitlement. And some, like Kelly O’Brien, feel like they got mugged. At least she knows she got ripped off. The ones who fall for it have no idea… and are far less likely to accomplish what they could have.

    I’m leery of calling something conspiracy when foolishness explains it, but I do sometimes wonder if the goal isn’t simply to turn out sheep, rather than free men and women capable of founding a country, taming a wilderness, designing modern wonders, going to the planets, whatever. Regardless of the intent, the results are the same, and they are both depressing and terrifying.

    • I find the sense of entitlement comment right on. It’s a you scratch my back, I scratch your back world. It’s the few that reach their own arm around to scratch that will no longer be part of the status quo and will be looked down upon.

      I applaud you John for having the courage to say that, even though it’s now unpopular, and given your position in molding the minds of the youth you teach.

      Some parents may disagree, but they may not see the sense in your words. They may confuse it with disparaging their child. By telling them they can do better, they avoid the easy way out in everything. That’s not disparagement, that’s encouragement. That’s telling them, give me your best. If they give their all and still fail, that’s worthy of respect. That’s when they deserve a comforting hand on the shoulder, or your metaphorical “stairs” to rest, before they learn from their mistakes, and try again.

      I feel bad for that student that worked harder than her peers. That’s being told no matter how well you do, you have to be equal with everyone else. We are only equals as human beings entitled to certain amount of respect and compassion. What we do with ourselves and the fullest use of our abilities is not equal.

      I don’t feel the slacker should be measured with the scholar. It does a disservice to both. If you want to single out somebody for accolades for overcoming great adversity while still ending up second or third best, that would be a proper use of a ribbon. That’s the exception to the rule. It doesn’t detract from those that clearly accomplished the most, but it gives a platform to show other accomplishments worthy of merit.

      That’s my two cents(and that doesn’t buy anything anymore).

    • Vantage Point Productions


      I would be quite dismayed if I got terminated because of this. I like to believe that most educated, sentient beings would agree with the direction of my commentary. Sadly, I am probably mistaken. Thanks for your response! (And, hey, do you know of any jobs out your way? LOL)


      Completely true. It is so good to have you back! You always home in on the target! Thanks for your input.


  7. Jason Patrick

    This was a great article, and you hit it perfectly. But dont forget that the so called “equality movement” is affecting every day life for everyone now days. We need people to stay strong, and never let the American battle cry for the economy and education die.

    • Vantage Point Productions


      You are right. It is affecting us in so many areas besides education. It is troubling. When we become too afraid or politically correct, as the case may be, to say when someone is doing the wrong thing, we lose our way as a society. When anything goes, everything goes.


  8. This article gets a A-, but don’t let it go to your head.

    I completely agree. My oldest is turning 11 this month. At age 5 we started playing chess. I taught him the basic moves and we rehersed them over and over, but when we played a game I have never taken it easy on him, I play my best and expected him to do his. And he did. Every game was a teaching match (why he made a good move and why he made a bad move) It took him a long time to beat me, but he did finally. And it meant something! When he wasn’t up for the challenge of chess we’d play an easier game, but he knew that he was going get a real game no matter what we played. Of course I never gloated in my victories over a child, and always encouraged his growth and success and always made it fun, but these are just teaching good sportsmenship. His self-confidence is authentic.

    • I don’t have children but I deal with children on a frequent basis. It’s good that you teach him and never gloat your victories, but that doesn’t work with every child. I’m glad you empowered him, you are modest in your victories, and use his loss as a review. Most kids aren’t equipped with a parent that cares as much.

      I know games, and I can play a lot of games at varying levels. If I am teaching someone chess, I play as a skilled beginner would play. I provides these as crumbs of accomplishment. Give them a taste of victory, so they can take pride in their expanding skill. You can then move to the next level of skill and give them a new benchmark to reach. Sometimes these small goals are just as important as the large ones. Just my thoughts on the children that haven’t had the types of role models some kids are blessed with.

    • Vantage Point Productions

      Jeremy and Tim,

      First, both of you would most likely whip me at chess. There, I got that out of the way.

      Next, wonderful points. That is why I said it was a good thing to promote the self-esteem of a young child. We need to focus on the positive with them.

      There just comes a time when we need to start adding some negatives with the positive. Constructive criticism should be just that — constructive, a mixture of the good and the bad. I strive to do that with my students.

      I constantly tell my students, when they are peer editing for example, that comments such as “this is dumb” or “this is stupid” are not helpful. I say, “How would you like it if you asked me why you received such a low grade and I said, ‘Because you are stupid?’ Would that teach you anything? Can you grow from that?” They always got it and I never had any of them say those words again.

      Jeremy and Tim, I love the chess analogy. Thank you for relating it to your own lives. That analogy works so well. If we compliment every move someone makes in chess, no matter how poorly executed, they will definitely not be good at the game! The same applies to life.

      Thanks again.


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