Self-Esteem: Too Much of a Good Thing?

In June, high school English teacher David McCullough sparked national debate with his commencement address to the Wellesley High School class of 2012. In it, he presented some candid thoughts on entitlement.


“Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.”

However, most parents would argue that high self-esteem is a good thing, critical, in fact, to success later in life. Not necessarily, says Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State and author of “Generation Me” and co-author of “The Narcissism Epidemic.”

According to Twenge, the research evidence is very clear that high self-esteem does not cause success. Instead the reverse is true. She says that good outcomes cause high self-esteem. But self-esteem itself “does not cause much of anything.”

For example, among U.S. ethnic groups, Twenge says, Asian-Americans have the lowest self-esteem, but the best academic performance. So, since self-esteem does not cause success, trying to increase self-esteem to lead to success is not going to work.

But that’s not all. According to Twenge, the way self-esteem is promoted can lead to narcissism and entitlement. For example, she says, “Giving kids a trophy just for showing up builds entitlement—the belief that you deserve something just for existing.” She adds, “Same for ‘You’re special just by being you.’ In other words, if self-esteem crosses over into narcissism and overconfidence, then it is possible to have too much self-esteem.”

Dr. Michelle Borba, parenting educator and author, contends that authentic self-esteem is a balance between a feeling of worthiness and capableness.

“Most parents are misinterpreting it and going overboard on the ‘worthiness’ with the praise,” she says. “Whatever you praise needs to be earned and deserved, or it will backfire. Too lavish and too sugar-coated doesn’t work either. Find your child’s natural talent. Many times a talent or strength is going to be different from academics.”

Borba adds that building self-esteem is important during the “tweens.”

“Their tween years are especially critical—bullying peaks—and strong self-esteem helps kids cope,” she says

So what should a parent do to help foster success? According to Twenge, the key is “to encourage two things that actually do lead to success: self-control and self-efficacy—believing you can do something as opposed to believing you are great.”

Go ahead and point out that her extra research and careful rewriting led to the “A” on her English paper, but no need for pom-poms and a cheer just because she made it to the bus on time.

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