According to an article in the Washington Post, schools and teachers have finally begun to recognize that efforts to boost student “self-esteem” that aren’t tied to concrete accomplishment aren’t achieving anything. The article says that three decades of research shows that constant praise irrespective of performance, participation trophies, and the like aren’t actually increasing self-esteem and instead are interfering with actual improvement and accomplishment.
This shouldn’t come as news to anyone. Indeed, the only surprise lies in the fact that it took three decades for schools to figure out what is obvious to most parents — but then, once a “concept” like “promoting self-esteem” gets rooted in the hidebound American educational system, it’s almost impossible to dig it out.
Kids — even kids who learn at a slower pace — aren’t stupid. They’re observant and socially aware. They know who is smart or adept at math or science and who isn’t, just like they know who is good at sports and who is a klutz. If you praise them for non-performance, they will feel patronized, not proud — and may conclude that you don’t care, or are too incompetent to determine, whether they are really learning. Neither message motivates kids to work harder and learn. Ask any parents whose basements are filled with boxes of the silly participation trophies or good citizenship medals or attendance certificates their kids have received — those “awards” mean nothing because the kids intuitively know that awards given to everyone mean nothing.
Self-esteem can’t be conferred, it has to be earned and developed by actual achievement. It’s time to return to schools that feature competitions with winners and losers, like science fairs and spelling bees and speech contests. When I was in elementary school, we used to play a game called conductor where two kids would stand next to a desk. The teacher would call out a math calculation, and the first student to give the right answer would move on while the loser would sit. If you made it through the entire classroom you felt legitimate pride — and those who sat down were motivated to work harder.
We need to forget about the trophy generation, and focus instead on how to turn our youngsters into an actual achievement generation.