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Building Real Self-Esteem

Certain phrases in education have a way of grating on my ears.  I'm referring now to the importance of self-esteem, which is considered sacrosanct.  At least I thought so until I read a recent op-ed with a provocative headline ("Losing Is Good for You," The New York Times, Sept. 25).

The writer explains how repeatedly praising young people can be counterproductive.  "The science is clear. Awards can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed.  Instead, it can cause them to underachieve."  In other words, we do them a disservice because life involves losing as often as - or even more often than - winning.

I'm not suggesting that teachers deliberately create Dickensian classrooms, where students learn to toughen up in the face of disappointment.  Instead, teachers need to explain that setbacks are an inescapable part of the human existence.  It's how they are viewed and processed that is most important. Yet there are teachers and parents who believe otherwise ("There's much more to life than being top of the class," The Telegraph, Sept. 25).

Teachers who have developed a bond with their students stand a far better chance of achieving this goal than those who remain aloof.  That's because students in the first group will be inclined to understand that the lesson being taught is not intended to be punitive.  Instead, it is designed to help them evolve.

There's another aspect that is worth noting.  Even young children know when praise is truly deserved.  If it is handed out indiscriminately, it breeds disrespect for the recognition.  Self-esteem comes only from genuine achievement that is based on maximum effort ("Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 28).  Anything else shortchanges students.  I hope that the self-esteem movement has finally crested and common sense now prevails.  

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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