Not Just Plane Talk: A Conversation about the Differences Between Self Esteem and Selfish Teen

For my class H611B: Moral Adults/More Children, Professor Rick Weissbourd, Harvard Graduate School of Education, February 24, 2011

There’s always a little risk in getting on a plane, not only because of the miniscule chance it will crash, but also because you never know who might sit next to you and talk your ear off for the entire flight. It was worth the risk to board my last flight, however, because of the remarkably stimulating conversation I overheard about self-esteem, praise, egoism, altruism, teenagers, and other topics related to the complexities of morality ethics and development.

The conversation started when the stewardess demonstrated the customary “what to do if you lose oxygen in the cabin” procedure: we are to first place the oxygen mask on ourselves and then put it on our child. Soon after this demonstration a woman in my row from the SF Bay Area held up a book entitled Self Esteem for Teens and proceeded to share that the metaphor of the oxygen mask served as blueprint for her philosophy on her children’s development. She said “I encourage my children to increase their self-esteem; if my daughter and son don’t first feel good about themselves, they can’t then do good for others. When they are lifted up, so to speak, they have a better perspective from which to do good for others.”

After a few minutes a man from the Midwest said “Excuse me ma’am, I mean no disrespect, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m a bit religious, but I don’t know about that New Age-y, California self-esteem stuff; those kinds of ideas almost seems like they are trying to replace religion.” The five nearby passengers seemed to anticipate a potentially entertaining conversation. He continued: “The Gospel says we should not think too highly of ourselves, that we should be humble and focus on being kind…and just to assure you I’m no major Bible fanatic, even philosopher William James said that the three most important things in life are ‘kindness, kindness and kindness’ (Weissbord, lecture). Woman: “You know, I’m not saying self-esteem is the holy grail…but speaking of religion, growing up I feared God would punish me if I did not do ‘good,’ which, to be honest, led me into a sort of depression because not come from my own volition but from a fear or obligation. Remember that book The Giving Tree that all our elementary school teachers read to us? At times I felt like that tree, giving till I ‘had not limbs left.’” Midwestern man: “With all due respect ma’am, that children’s book has a lot more interpretations. In my humble opinion I think your kids might be headed for tough lessons down the road. The word ‘self’ is related to ‘selfish,’ and is well on the way to ‘pride,’ ‘arrogance,’ or even more secular psychology terms like ‘ego’ and ‘narcissism’ (Baumeister & Boden). I think Narcissus is even a Greek character…these ideas that have been around a lot longer than the ‘me generation 70’s!’”

If any of us were not paying attention to the conversation, we were now!  Midwestern Man: “Besides that, as soon as someone challenges kids’ high and mighty views of themseleves, there’s likely to be an ugly fight…remember West Side Story? One moment the gangs are singing about being the Jets, all pumped up on the self-esteem drug, feeling like they rule the world (Baumeister & Boden) and the next thing one of them gets stabbed! I mean really, how much good can you do for the world with a knife in your belly!” California woman: “I’m not talking about extreme cases of over-confidence like gangs, I’m talking about the kind of self-esteem that empowers kids make a new friend or approach their teachers to get extra help, so they can do better in school and in the world. I see books about this all the time and researchers do studies to back it up!”

A second woman in our row put down her book and joined the conversation: “I’m sorry, I could not help overhearing this conversation…I’m a Psychologist, and I assure you, not all research is good or valid research. People who want to believe in ideas like self-esteem tend to be optimistic, enthusiastic and motivated, and often find creative ways for their data to match the results they want (Kohn). In fact, there was a study done on the phenomenon that many American students perform worse in Math than Asian students but when asked how they think they did, their estimates were extremely high (Finn). I think the paper is titled “Doing Bad, Feeling Good.” California woman: “Or perhaps Asians are socialized to not express over-confidence…in the long run I’ll bet the kids who were over confident developed an infectious enthusiasm for Math and ended up doing better…what you visualize will come to you…has anyone seen the movie The Secret?” Psychologist: “Yes, I have, and speaking of movies, these fashionable and popular self-esteem ideas arose out of the counter-culture and were used to sell Hollywood movies, those simplistic airport books (we chuckled) and to get viewership for sensationalist talk shows (Damon)…beware of movies like The Secret with its message of ‘visualize a million dollars and it will come to you!’”

Next a man from New York City spoke up: “Excuse me, but I just have to say my piece…I moved my family to the SF Bay Area because of its purported diversity, open-mindedness and self-aware culture…we did benefit a lot from all it had to offer but I also heard more politically correct lingo than I could bear…it felt like a tsunami of artificial praise and self-esteem (Finn)! Simply saying ‘I’m terrific’ and ‘I’m OK’ like those SNL jokes is almost like saying empty words. OK, ‘I’m terrific’…but terrific at what? (Damon). I say stop patronizing the kids by using praise words that are vague and abstract that probably have the effect of making kids confused about the true motivations of the adults or even distrusting them (Damon). Worst of all, I saw this kind of talk a lot more with minority African American and Latino kids. No offense but it felt like these comments came more from white teachers who were uncomfortable with subconscious guilt…giving nice positive affirmations to the poor minority students who they assumed had poor self-esteem (Finn). And one more thing, the praising movement seems to ignore many of the political and economic reasons behind low self-esteem, and in that sense sustains and reinforces the status-quo” (Kohn).

Meal service came and the California woman tried to lighten things up by saying “Well, if I can’t have my self-esteem, at least give me some wine!”

After the meal the Psychologist joined us again, confessing that this was one of her specialty subjects and that this conversation was helping her get more clear on some of her ideas. Psychologist: “Topics related to self-esteem can be elusive, complex and paradoxical (Finn). I’ve tried to acknowledge that complexity by making my research more interdisciplinary, including Philosophy, Sociology, History, Science and other disciplines. Sadly, many Psychologists do not read the works of people in related disciplines like Criminology and Religion/Spirituality despite common interests and converging evidence (Baumeister & Boden). This debate tends to polarize people and set up a ‘false dichotomy’ (Kohn). While it might seem counter-intuitive, studies show that self-doubting kids are just as likely as those who are pleased with themselves to come to someone else’s aid. There is no reason to think higher self-esteem causes enhanced academic performance (Kohn).” Californian: “But I’ve read a few books that site a correlation!” Psychologist: “That is one of the biggest misconceptions amongst those who don’t understand statistics. High correlation is often due to other related variables. For example, there is a strong correlation between the presence of snow boots and the phenomenon of slow traffic in a town, but they do not cause each other…indeed both are actually connected to snowy weather conditions. Correlation does not prove causation! Self-esteem might be called an ‘ill-disciplined field’ or an ‘undisciplined discipline’ in the sense that it is not difficult to have data to appear to show what you want it to show…the intention is self-esteem, but watch out for ‘selfish teens’ (laughter). In fact, efforts to ‘feel good’ often fail to strengthen integrity, responsibility and achievement” (Kohn). Midwesterner: “That’s what I was trying to say, all this touchy-feely cooperative stuff …”

At this point the Psychologist changed the course of this plane conversation: “Hold on, this is where the false dichotomy comes in. There are not only two choices. You mentioned The Giving Tree…well imagine a third alternative for the boy and the tree…suppose the boy came to the tree and instead of the tree giving away it’s apples, limbs and trunk as a way to be morally good, the tree engaged the in fruitful (no pun intended) conversation and the boy walked away as more self-aware person (Grant)? The nature of our decision-making processes in life is much more nuanced and complex than just 2, 3 or even 4 choices. And why is a false dichotomy dangerous? This is an over-simplification but consider that the ‘anti-self-esteem’ folks are waging a wider war to preserve the ‘Old School of Education’ and to end any affective education that strays from the traditional basics of academia. Some of these people are those who want to do away with bilingual education, multicultural curricula and cooperative learning (Kohn). We need to be skeptical about what we hear from both boosters and bashers of self-esteem. The answers, I suspect, lies in deeper, more complex and subtle solutions, like helping kids focus on their effort rather than their (often misperceived) ability, and helping them become absorbed with the learning itself rather than focusing on the external evaluation of the performance traditionally called ‘grades’ which tend to be the focus of praise. As educators why don’t we orient and steer kids toward collaborating, empowering their collective voice, and giving them more say in their own curriculum. Rather than showering kids with praise, why don’t parents focus on progressing morally themselves, increasing their self-awareness (Weissbourd), and cultivating their ability to pay closer attention to their children’s lives? Not that it’s as easy as it sounds, but how about simply loving kids more? (Grant). We can still embrace affective education, but in a more authentic way, based in the language that the kids can relate to. Another way of looking at this is that egoism and altruism is a false dichotomy…there are many variations of egoism and altruism, and let’s encourage the healthy forms and discourage the unhealthy forms of both (Grant). The better forms can do double duty (Kohn) to serve a larger good of humanity. Perhaps ‘goodness’ should be measured by its contribution to human flourishing: one’s own humanity and the humanity of others” (Grant).

There was a long silence and then, when we least expected it, a quiet, trembling voice came from a frail, older person sitting in the aisle in front of us: “Maybe, in fact, the whole notion of ‘I’ in the sense of being ‘separate from you’ is a kind of illusion. Maybe on a deeper level I am you!” I noticed slight tears welling up in the eyes of some in our group.

It was time for our plane, and this not-very-plain conversation, to land. We all thanked each other for this unexpected, engaging and educational journey of a conversation. For me this was not just an experience that elucidated insights about morality and our lives. I truly felt blessed to be a part of this experience and felt in some way changed.

And yet there was a sense of light-heartedness as I joked to myself “We’re all just so terrific!”

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