The self-esteem movement aimed to protect a child's esteem and build their belief in self, but this crusade did more damage to kids than it helped. This drive to improve self-esteem largely dominated American households and schools during the 1970’s and 1980’s following the first book of a series on the topic, ‘The Psychology of Self-Esteem’ written in 1969 by psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden (1930-2014).
I can vouch for this movement in my household since I was kid during that time with a father who taught graduate psychology at The Ohio State University. Dad definitely embodied unconditional love and positive affirmations.
In first grade circa 1972, I learned about verbal ‘warm fuzzies’ and ‘cold pricklies’ in my progressive suburban elementary school. We practiced giving warm fuzzies to our classmates and were reprimanded for any cold pricklies we dispensed. From first to fourth grade, I attend an open concept classroom where less structured teacher-driven learning gave way to student-centered learning. We worked in groups to accomplish certain assignments and goals. The teacher acted more of a facilitator or organizer in this open concept popular in America in the late 1960’s and 70’s.
Thanks to my mother, she removed me from this disastrous learning environment for me and put my butt back in a more organized and demanding environment. Thank you for rescuing me mom!
Self-esteem movement spills over into sports
If you are anywhere near my age (aghmm 50’s), then you know this self-esteem fad at the time spilled over into children’s television. Then it took over youth sports where we could no longer have winners and losers, MVP’s and most improved. Now everyone got a participation trophy whether they worked hard and got better or not.
The influence of this movement directed parents and teachers to infuse kids with positive affirmations, unconditional praise and feedback in an effort to shield children from the pain of low self-esteem resulting after criticism and difficult environments. As the movement spilled over into the 90’s, the father of the movement, Branden, ironically expressed his concern at the self-esteem fad and the prevailing ‘oversimplifications and sugar-coatings of pop psychology’. He did not approve of where the self-esteem movement took his initial work explaining the concept.
The movement erroneously hung on the principle that ‘building a child’s esteem’ or ‘developing a child’s self-esteem’ through rhetoric and the removal of direct competition lead to stronger resilience, confidence, and mental toughness. Teachers, parents, and even youth coaches thought simply claiming ‘you are special’ and keeping things universally fun without struggle meant a better self-esteem and stronger belief in self. Boy were they wrong.
Branden disagrees with the self-esteem movement
Branden himself openly criticized those who took his principles and devalued his intention, “We do not serve the healthy development of young people when we convey that self-esteem may be achieved by reciting ‘I am special’ every day, or by stroking one’s own face while saying ‘I love me’”.
He further stated these educators were harming children for praising simple daily tasks and creating what we have come to know as the ‘entitlement generation’, “I have stressed that ‘feel good’ notions are harmful rather than helpful. Yet if one examines the proposals offered to teachers on how to raise students’ self-esteem, many are the kind of trivial nonsense that gives self-esteem a bad name, such as praising and applauding a child for virtually everything he or she does, dismissing the importance of objective accomplishments, handing out gold stars on every possible occasion, and propounding an ’entitlement’ idea of self-esteem that leaves it divorced from both behavior and character”.
Consequences of the self-esteem movement
Our country faces epidemic proportions of anxiety and depression in part thanks to this self-esteem movement. We have increasing numbers in all ages of people who cannot handle basic daily responsibilities and challenges. They crumble in disagreement. They want praise for basic self-care and household duties. They lash out if a superior figure such as a teacher demands excellence in the classroom. They fall apart when affirmations do not come from a coach or boss and whither into a victim who claims this person is ‘too mean’ or ‘too hard’.
We now have a culture of people who demand external validation to be emotionally okay. And yes, social media exacerbates the problem. Social media is the steroid shot injecting a perceived higher need for this outside affirmation. Quite honestly, let us recognize the obvious here---relying on others for esteem and emotional well-being is a contradiction to ‘self-esteem’.
What do we do now to counter the self-esteem movement
In general, our society has stopped using natural law and common sense when raising, disciplining, and coaching young people. Adults need to consider the damage of this self-esteem movement since like myself, many who grew up with this self-esteem movement are now parents, teachers, and coaches. The result of this effort is a nation of adults young and old who are emotionally crippled, entitled, and insecure lacking self-confidence.
We must change course to raise the next generations to build their self-esteem and confidence through the experience of struggle, from being challenged, and doing hard things like sports and not giving up when it gets difficult. Improved esteem and confidence does not develop when things are easy and comfortable.
We need to help our children and athletes recognize their mistakes, own their choices, and adjust from normal consequences. Parents, teachers, and coaches must stop shielding kids from demanding people and help them navigate it and get better because of those people. We need individuals who do not rely on external validation but can self-manage their thoughts, feelings, and behavior.