Conventional wisdom would seem to support the proposition that if you raise a child’s self- esteem, then she will get better grades, she will be more likely to treat others with kindness and respect, and she will not be so prone to surrender to common adolescent peer pressures that lead to engagement in premarital sex, binge drinking, and use of illicit drugs. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is dead wrong. As Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell prove by their painstaking research, the preoccupation with raising children’s self-esteem has helped young people feel really good about themselves and their accomplishments (regardless of the quality of those accomplishments), but it has no direct correlation to any kind of improvement in academic performance, relationships, or moral fortitude.
Instead, the focus on raising self-esteem has achieved a marked increase in the level of narcissism in our society. “Narcissism is one of the few personality traits that psychologists agree is almost completely negative” (Twenge 68).
The attempt to improve our children by raising their self-esteem has not only produced full-blown narcissists, but it has led to a much higher level of narcissistic behaviors and attitudes in young people than at any point in our history. Instead of trying to instill the virtues of tenacity, perseverance, and a strong work ethic that will naturally bring about a healthy, earned sense of self-esteem, there has been a concerted attempt to preserve a false self-esteem at all costs by eliminating competition (trophies for everyone), offering unconditional validation, and endorsing the unrealistic sense of the “special” nature of each individual.
The full title of Twenge’s first book is Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Con dent, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before. Twenge’s moniker of “GenMe” is descriptive of this generation of young people in two ways. It gives a nod to the Microsoft Millennium Edition (Me) operating system that came out in 2000 (when many in this generation were coming of age and flooding college campuses), and it refers to the inordinate self-absorption that this segment of the population exhibits. If it seems like this generation of young people is more sel sh, entitled, and demanding than past generations, it is because they really are. They didn’t get this way all by themselves.
Societal forces, educational curricula, and parents have continually drilled the GenMe population with the mantra that each one of them is “special.” “Teacher training courses often emphasize that a child’s self-esteem must be preserved above all else” and that “creating
a positive atmosphere is more important than correcting mistakes” (Twenge, 57, 61-62). Competitive games have been outlawed on school playgrounds during recess; city recreation programs have done away with keeping score in children’s games; and bestowing academic awards has ceased because adults fear that a child’s self-esteem may be damaged if he or she experiences a loss. The fact that a child feels good about himself has generally been deemed to be more important than a good performance (Twenge 56-57). The number of students reporting an “A” average has jumped to 48% in 2004 as compared with 18% in 1968, even though SAT scores have declined over this same period and students report spending less time studying (Twenge, 62-63).
The ripple effect of all of these self-esteem preserving practices has had a plethora of far- reaching consequences. Many young people have an inflated self-opinion that goes unchallenged until they try to get into a selective college or they attempt to get a job in a competitive work force. These attempts often result in what Twenge has termed “Adulthood Shock” (Twenge, 7). Young people relate to the world on their own terms and feel that the world should conform to them instead of having to conform to it. Self-expression and personal opinion are greatly valued by this generation, and this often finds physical manifestation in an assortment of tattoos and body piercings. Relationships among this group have also been significantly affected. Marriage is something that happens later in life if at all. “Hooking up” has replaced the archaic practice of “dating,” and sex has become a recreational activity rather than a creational act. They meet, chat, and promote themselves on Facebook and YouTube. The internet has provided the perfect platform to accelerate narcissistic tendencies. Twenge and Campbell’s book, The Narcissism Epidemic, devotes a chapter to the influence of the internet and social networking that Twenge had only touched on in her first book. Social networking was barely in its infancy when her first book was published in 2006.
“Self-esteem is an outcome, not a cause,” Twenge ultimately professes, “In other words, it doesn’t do much good to encourage a child to feel good about himself just to feel good; this doesn’t mean anything” (Twenge, 67). What we really should have been aiming at to get the desired outcomes was what Twenge terms “self-control” which she defines as “the ability to persevere and keep going” (Twenge, 68). “Children high in self- control make better grades and finish more years of education, and they’re less likely to use drugs or have a teenage pregnancy. Self-control predicts all of those things researchers had hoped self-esteem would, but hasn’t” (Twenge, 67). In fact, Twenge and Campbell found that the ethnic group with the lowest measured self-esteem, Asian-Americans, is the group with the highest level of academic performance and highest level of employment.
Both of these books provide copious information on the characteristics and tendencies of Generation Me. They roundly condemn the methods that have been used to raise self-esteem as wrong-headed and even detrimental. “The self-esteem movement . . . is popular because it is sweetly addictive: teachers don’t have to criticize, kids don’t have to be criticized, and everyone goes home feeling happy. The problem is they also go home ignorant and uneducated” (Twenge, 67).
If you are a teacher, a parent, or an administrator, you already know this generation well because you live with them every day. Twenge and Campbell will help you to understand them better. They don’t merely identify the disease brought on by the self-esteem movement and the inevitable narcissism that results; they also offer some ways to cure the illness. Most of them boil down to loving our children in a healthy way. This means telling our children that we love them rather than telling them that they are “special,” and it means allowing our children to fall down so that they learn to get up and try again.