Thursday, November 13, 2008

Self Esteem Movement is destructive

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 12 (HealthDay News) -- Today's American high school students are far likelier than those in the 1970s to believe they'll make outstanding spouses, parents and workers, new research shows.

They're also much more likely to claim they are "A" students with high IQs -- even though other research shows that today's students do less homework than their counterparts did in the 1970s.

The findings, published in the November issue of Psychological Science, support the idea that the "self-esteem" movement popular among today's parents and teachers may have gone too far, the study's co-author said.

"What this shows is that confidence has crossed over into overconfidence," said Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

She believes that decades of relentless, uncritical boosterism by parents and school systems may be producing a generation of kids with expectations that are out of sync with the challenges of the real world.

"High school students' responses have crossed over into a really unrealistic realm, with three-fourths of them expecting performance that's effectively in the top 20 percent," Twenge said.

For the study, she and co-researcher W. Keith Campbell, of the University of Georgia, pored over data from the Monitoring the Future study, a large national survey of thousands of U.S. high school students conducted periodically over the past three decades.

The researchers compared the answers kids gave in 1975 and 2006 to 13 questions centered on students' "self-views." These questions solicited students' opinions on such things as how smart they thought they were, or how likely they were to be successful as adults.

"When we look at the responses of the students in the '70s, they are certainly confident that they are going to perform well, but their responses are more modest, a little more realistic" than teens in 2006, Twenge said.

For example, in 1975, less than 37 percent of teens thought they'd be "very good" spouses, compared to more than 56 percent of those surveyed in 2006. Likewise, the number of students who thought they'd become "very good" parents rose from less than 36 percent in 1975 to more than 54 percent in 2006. And almost two-thirds of teens in 2006 thought they'd be exemplary workers, compared to about half of those polled in 1975.

As for self-reported academic achievement, twice as many students in 2006 than in 1976 said they earned an "A" average in high school -- 15.6 percent vs. 7.7 percent, the report found.

Compared to their counterparts from the '70s, today's youth also tended to rate themselves as more intelligent and were more likely to say they were "completely satisfied" with themselves.

There was one exception -- measures of "self-competency" (i.e., agreeing with statements such as, "I am able to do things as well as most other people") did not rise between 1976 and 2006. According to Twenge, that may mean that young people continue to feel great self-worth even as they remain unsure of their competence in specific tasks.

Twenge stressed that youthful confidence isn't necessarily bad. "Young people have always had some degree of starry-eyed optimism, and that's probably a good thing," she said. "And setting goals for yourself is a good thing. It's just when those goals are wildly unrealistic, then that can cause trouble for everyone."

For example, young people entering the workforce may score well in job interviews if they exude self-confidence, she said, but that can quickly sour if a new employer doesn't provide them with the perks or promotions they feel they deserve. "They don't set the right goals for themselves, because they are overconfident -- and that's when it blows up in their face," Twenge said.

The blame for all this may lie with well-intentioned adults, she suggested.

"These kids didn't raise themselves, they got these ideas from somewhere," Twenge said. With Mom and Dad handing out endless praise, kids today readily believe they are somehow superior, she said. And teachers aren't blameless, either: According to Twenge, research shows that high school teachers now give out an "A" grade more easily than their counterparts did in the 1970s, even though today's high school students report doing less homework than students from that era.

Not everyone interpreted the new findings in the same way, however. Jennifer Crocker is a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and a longtime researcher in self-esteem. She said that by selecting data from 1975 and 2006, Twenge and Campbell have only presented two moments in time and have not shown evidence of any decades-long trend.

And based on available academic data, today's young Americans might be right to be more self-confident, Crocker argued.

"The fact is that we are all getting smarter -- IQ is going up quite dramatically over this same period of time," Crocker noted. "Students may believe that they are getting trained better than they used to, that they are learning skills that they didn't use to have. So, maybe their predictions aren't unreasonable."

But Twenge, who is the author of a book on young people's self-views called Generation Me, isn't convinced. In fact, she believes that today's parents may be sending another crop of young Americans down the same path.

"I have a 2-year-old daughter," she said. "I see the parenting of kids around her age, and I haven't seen this changing. Look around -- about a fourth of the clothing available to her says 'Little Princess' on it."


  1. I wouldn't say it's inherently destructive, the Alter of Slabodka got very far with teaching esteem. Much of 20th century Orthodoxy's religious leadership are products of the Alter's "Gadlus haAdom" (greatness of man) ideology.

    The Alter thereby fundamentally influenced yeshivos from YU’s RIETS (R’ Yaakov Moshe Lessin) to the Mir (R’ Lazer Udel Finkel), from Chevron (which was a branch of Slabodka) to Lakewood (R’ Aharon Kotler) to Ner Israel (R' Ruderman), from Rav Kook to Ponevezh (R Yosef Kahaneman, R’ Schach). And there are literally over a dozen yeshivos founded by his students.

    Perhaps they just need to open Or haTzafun and learn how to do it right.


  2. Micha,
    That's why we have 2 pockets :-)
    Joel Rich

  3. micha said...

    I wouldn't say it's inherently destructive, the Alter of Slabodka got very far with teaching esteem. Much of 20th century Orthodoxy's religious leadership are products of the Alter's "Gadlus haAdom" (greatness of man) ideology.
    The teaching of the Alter bears little resemblance to the contemporary understanding of self esteem where the goal of education, parenting and therapy is to develop self esteem by praising that which doesn't deserve praise, by reducing challenges so there is little failure and promoting those who don't merit promoting. Self esteem has become **the** measure of man.

  4. See

    for a comment on how this is affecting the university crowd.

  5. Will the contemporary frum apostles of self-esteem, such as Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski and a lot of the frum people in the psychological industries, now reconsider, and temper their promotion of it? Or will we once again blindlessly duplicate the mistakes of the outside world that masquerade as progressive thinking and only wake up years later?

  6. Rabbi Twerski's take is very different than what Barbara Kaye describes was learned by the college students surveyed. That's not to say it is different than what was taught. It could be that healthy self esteem is unteachable.

    R' Twerski's position is that modesty comes from self confidence (more than esteem -- I think he himself makes this distinction in terminology). Only someone who is unsure of themselves needs to brag.

    I think RJR and RDE are really saying the same thing. According to R' Dov Katz, it was the Alter who had you put a message in each pocket. (Chassidim attribute it to R' Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, but then they do that with many mussar stories. Just as Litvaks tend to arbitrarily attribute them to R' Yisrael Salanter or the Chafeitz Chaim.)

    Gadlus ha'adam is about the realization that one is always capable of reaching higher. If we liken it to mountain climbing, gadlus ha'adam is realizing the height of the mountain Hashem obviously believes we're capable of climbing. It calls upon us to look upward. The self esteem movement is about looking downward and being happy/satisfied with how far one came.


  7. Dr. Twerski's approach is that of most traditional Jewish mothers
    "tzaddikl,if you don't stop hitting your brother, I'm going to punish you".

    The child is inherently good at all times, even when the behavior is bad, the punishment is also for the good.

    Jews have always educated their children this way. Hashem loves you, and you are inherently good, even when you don't do what you are supposed to, and when you suffer, it is also for some good.

  8. Jersey Girl said...

    Dr. Twerski's approach is that of most traditional Jewish mothers
    "tzaddikl,if you don't stop hitting your brother, I'm going to punish you".
    I disagree with your assessment but watch Rabbi Dr. Twerski describe his struggles with his own low self esteem.

  9. There is an excellent article discussing Dr. Twerski's approach;col1

    "The Americanization of Mussar by Andrew Heinze"

  10. Another example of Dr. Twerski identifying self-esteem as the critical factor in child rearing and solving all problems

  11. Perhaps my comment was misunderstood, please forgive me.

    I have spoken with Rabbi Dr. Twerski a number of times; my mother knew the Twerski family as did my grandparents.

    I feel as though the articles in the links which you so kindly provided support my belief that Rabbi Dr. Twerski feels the traditional texts and pedagogy within Judaism do foster a child's self esteem.

    This is one of the reasons why Jews traditionally excel in business and the professions. Many also believe that the Bar Mitzvah is an excellent means for a young man to overcome his natural lack of self esteem.

    I feel as though Rabbi Dr. Twersky's approach is "Mesillat Yesharim" (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan notes included). This is what my mother said years ago in defense of Rabbi Dr. Twerski when he was first rising to prominence in the field of psychiatry which was traditionally viewed as antithetical to Jewish tradition. (In fact the "banned" book, The Chosen by Chaim Potok is rumored to be based on Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski's life).

    I learn Mesillat Yesharim with each of my children for the first time as they are approaching puberty because I was taught by my mother that this sefer provides a good foundation in self esteem.


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