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Defending the Efficacy of Healthy Self-Esteem   Self Esteem 15


I added a data-byte that Bob gave me the other day. Bob also gave me a

wonderful personal story, which I think works nicely at the beginning.

Thanks to Jack for his encouragement to do this.

I have also added verbiage on 'shame' per David Boulton. I chose not to

include the article on rejection lowering IQ because it speaks about

self-control rather than self-esteem, and I don’t think it will dramatically

improve what we already have. I've also included a citation of that awful

Psychology Today article, putting it in the same (sinking) boat as Slater's.

I’ve verified all our sources. Take a read next time you're at the pool...

Let’s shop it! Any luck contacting the NYT editor?



Senator John Vasconcellos

Robert Reasoner

Michele Borba, Ed.D.

Len Duhl, M.D.

Jack Canfield

"I grew up in a predominantly Italian immigrant section of Brooklyn.  It was a neighborhood of working class people, but there were several seedy pool halls, street gangs and hoods.  I entered the seventh grade at P.S. 259 with a school history that included mediocre grades, atrocious conduct and a flip attitude that reflected ‘School is for creeps!’

For a long time I was viewed as a hopeless student until I was placed in Miss Lawson’s class. She turned me away from the streets to books. Until then I had hated books and dreaded reading.  My uncles distrusted book learning and said that too much reading makes a person go crazy.  My Ma and Pa seldom read anything except True Confessions and the Daily Mirror.  All my friends considered reading a drag.  But as a result of Miss Lawson’s personal interest in me and the concern and confidence she expressed in me I eventually achieved the highest grade average in junior high school.

I dropped out of school to take on back-breaking jobs in warehouses, piers, factories, railroad yards and construction. Because of the memory of Miss Lawson and the academic aptitude she nurtured in me I decided to continue school.  I graduated and went on to college, where I graduated magna cum laude, to UCLA for my master’s degree, to Oxford for further study, and finally graduated from Harvard Law School, where I was selected as the class valedictorian.  

Fom my own experience I know that by fostering self-esteem and caring enough, a dedicated inspiring teacher can change a young person’s life from one of misery to one of success."

Judge Joseph Sorrentino, Criminal Prosecutor, Author, Los Angeles, CA[1]


The Trouble with ‘The Trouble with Self-Esteem 

The New York Times Sunday Magazine has, by its February 3 publication of Lauren Slater’s article The Trouble With Self-Esteem, performed a valuable service by bringing into public debate the issue of whether we can cultivate a constructive, self-realizing, responsible society by developing in individuals a healthy, authentic self-esteem.  Slater's cynical and deeply misguided appraisal of self-esteem deserves a published response by an opposing coalition of leaders in the field, so the people of America (especially our parents and their children) are fully apprised of both sides of this proactive debate.

The emotional needs of young people today are in a state of crisis.  In 30 years we’ve seen a 300% increase in adolescent suicide and a 1000% increase in adolescent depression[2]—higher than any other country in the world.  We all decry the rising social epidemics of school violence and drug abuse, which decades of reseach have shown to be clearly related to the breakdown of family and community support systems used to nurture healthy self-esteem in our youth.

Fact is most educators, parents, and community leaders agree on the qualities that are most important to develop in young people, and high self-esteem is one of those qualities most commonly mentioned.  Although perspectives on how to develop these desired qualities in our children vary widely, each is tethered to a centuries-old debate about our essential human nature, going as far back as Comenius[3] in the 1590's. Comenius believed that a newly born child does not arrive into this world as an empty vessel, but is more like a seed awaiting to be nourished.  We affirm this faithful view of humanity, and believe that through love and nurturance we are all innately inclined to becoming more life-affirming, constructive, responsible and trustworthy. 

Drawing upon a long tradition of social theory and research, we further believe that nurturing a healthy self-concept based on pride and positive thinking is a sensible alternative to the shame, self-degradation and hopelessness that has become so pervasive in our youth today.  We remain steadfast in our belief that the self-esteem movement represents the cutting edge in the development of human potential.  For parents, policy makers and community leaders it also represents our most propitious and effective means of building social capital and developing sustainable solutions to the major social challenges with which we are faced.

Toward a more constructive definition of self-esteem

Authorities in the fields of psychology, education, and healthcare have attempted to clarify what is meant by high self-esteem. They agree that high self-esteem implies the healthy, authentic nature of self-esteem, rather than just "liking yourself a lot" or "feeling good about oneself" as Lauren Slater’s article suggests.  Characteristics such as conceit, egotism, arrogance, narcissism, or a sense of superiority should not be considered aspects of high self-esteem.  Such characteristics are more indicative of defensive, pseudo, or low self-esteem. 

Most authorities now agree with Nathaniel Branden Ph.D., world reknown psychotherapist and author, who defined self-esteem several years ago as "the disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness." This definition was acknowledged by psychology professor Christopher Mruk Ph.D. of Bowling Green University in his book Self-Esteem: Research, Theory, and Practice to be the one sound definition that has withstood the test of time.

Our sense of competence is grounded in the belief that we are generally capable of producing desired results.  It arises from being secure in the efficacy of our mind, our ability to think, to make appropriate choices and decisions.  It comes as a by-product to trusting ourselves, living consciously, striving to be ‘realistic’ in how we view ourselves and others, and by taking pride in our accomplishments.  Having confidence in ourselves makes other less threatening, which enables us to be more tolerant and respectful of others, to be accountable, fair and open-minded. 

Our sense of worthiness is tethered to our core beliefs about ourselves and our human nature.  To believe we are all worthy of love, life, and liberty is to believe we are all deserving of respect, nurturance, and happiness.  Authentic self-esteem is life affirming, not to be dismissed as some “romantic, sometimes silly…belief that we are special from head to toe,” and certainly not some scam by psychotherapists to retain their clientele, as Slater’s article suggests.  Rather, it’s a by-product of taking pride in who we are and what we do.

Parents, educators, and counseling professionals are continually being encouraged to establish conditions that foster healthy self-esteem, and for several compelling reasons. 

First, low self-esteem has been closely associated with so many problem behaviors, especially among adolescents. Robert Rothman reported in Education Week[4] that as many as 50% of the nation’s adolescents are considered to be ‘at risk’ of engaging in a variety of problems due to low self-esteem.  According to his report, adolescents with low self-esteem typically suffer from a crisis of self-confidence that manifests through a variety of behaviors. They are easily influenced or manipulated by others, and are often subject to being scapegoated by their peers. They can be observed either withdrawing from social contacts or attempting to prove their significance by showing off, engaging in risky behavior, bullying others, or developing notions of grandiosity to compensate for their low self-esteem.

Second, research studies have clearly identified low self-esteem as a major risk factor for a number of psychological conditions.  Keagan reported in his article "Positive Self-Esteem" that low self-esteem either causes or contributes to anxiety, defensiveness, drug abuse and alcoholism, depression, interpersonal problems as well as low academic achievement.[5]  Gurnery in his research review published in Educational Research found there was a close link between low self-esteem and juvenile delinquency, violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, and chronic welfare dependency.[6]  

The statistical coupling of low self-respect with depression, suicide, teenage pregnancy, school dropouts, eating disorders, and economic outcomes has all been well documented.   There are some researchers who have not found this to be true.  Most empirical deviations are likely the result of using different definitions of self-esteem. Regardless, proving that low self-esteem is a major causal factor will always be nebulous since negative behavior will always be impacted by multiple factors. Nevertheless, low self-esteem is found to be a common factor in most cases.

A third reason for the significance of self-esteem is that it is a primary factor in behavioral change. Individuals are not likely to change their behavior unless they first change how they see themselves. If a child accepts the position that s/he doesn’t have the capability to succeed in school, chances of academic success are obviously diminished, regardless of intellectual ability. For this reason, virtually all remediation programs designed to correct problem behaviors, whether in children or adults, incorporates a self-esteem component.

Fourth, numerous research studies have documented that children who turn out to be highly successful, contributing adults and who lead generally happy lives come from those families who have established conditions that foster high self-esteem. One such longitudinal study was conducted by University of California professor and author Stanley Coopersmith, who followed up on 1739 adolescents and published his findings in his book The Antecedents of Self-Esteem. He found that creating family standards of behavior that are clearly defined and consistently enforced, providing unconditional love and respect, and having high expectations were leading factors in developing high self-esteem.

Fifth, schools that have implemented self-esteem programs report positive changes in their students. In a 12 year study by Hawkins reported in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine and published in the New York Times, it was reported that enhancing self-esteem in 1st  through 6th graders reduced risky behaviors and improved school performance and attendance.[7]  Children participating in the study were 19% less likely to have committed violent acts, 38% less likely to indulge in heavy drinking, 3l% less likely to engage in sexual intercourse, and 35% less likely to have caused a pregnancy or to have become pregnant.

In an article published in The School Executive it was reported that a three-year control study found that schools that implemented the Building Self-Esteem program had less anti-social behavior among the general student population, less absenteeism, more positive leadership, and higher academic motivation.[8]  When this program was implemented on a district-wide basis, average daily attendance increased to 99.7%, achievement test scores increased 10-15%, dropout rate declined from 18% to 4.5%, drug abuse declined, and the percentage of students going on to college increased from 65% to 89%.

In a control study of over 1,000 students by Michele Borba, Ed.D. it was found that the number of students in school who were considered to be "at risk" of school failure or involvement in social problems was reduced by 66% as a result of their participation in a schoolwide, skill-based self-esteem program that focused on five elements: security, identity, affiliation or belonging, a sense of purpose, and skills of competence.[9]  There was also a 41% reduction in student physical aggression and a 46% reduction in student detentions for misbehavior.  Clearly, research has demonstrated that self-esteem programs can make a difference.

Finally, Fortune magazine has reported that companies are stressing the need for individuals who adjust easily to change, work cooperatively, exhibit tolerance and respect for others, take on challenges, and show initiative and self-motivation.  For that reason they consider high self-esteem to be one of the essential characteristics they look for in new employees.

In a longitudinal study of all the children born in the UK in 1970 with follow-ups every five years thereafter, researchers found that low self-esteem was a strong indicator of unemployment as adults.[10]  Boys with high self-esteem as young children reduced the likelihood of unemployment as adults. The report concludes that more attention should be paid to self-esteem and non-academic behaviors as a means of identifying future difficulties in society.  Moreover, they found self-esteem to have a far greater impact on future success than talent or intelligence.

Opposing the cynical view of self-esteem

Recently a few authors have taken the position of discounting the efficacy of self-esteem and have raised doubts regarding its significance.  Nicholas Emlier Ph.D. in Psychology Today[11] and Lauren Slater both report on research where the authors associate high self-esteem with having an inflated ego, and with behaviors more commonly associated with insecurity such as arrogance and conceit.  When researchers use such absurd definitions for self-esteem, it’s no surprise they conclude that "people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to those around them than people with low self-esteem."

Further, Slater reports that the main objective of school self-esteem programs is "to dole out huge heapings of praise, regardless of actual accomplishment."  Anyone who’s knowledgeable about the published programs knows that this is not the case.  Most programs are designed to develop attitudes and skills based on reality and actual accomplishment, not heapings of undue praise.  Such programs seek to enable students to make better decisions, engage in goal setting, develop more effective social skills, and see themselves realistically.  The author trivializes efforts to foster self-esteem by profiling affirmations such as "I adore myself" or "Today I will accept myself for who I am, not who I wish I were." She ignores all the other strategies that are required to foster high self-esteem.

Lauren Slater concludes that self-esteem and pride can be bad for your health—a ridiculous notion!  When she refers to self-esteem as a quasi religion, and implies that mental health professionals propagate the value of self-esteem for personal gain, she does a great disservice to all those who search for ways of increasing the chances that our youth will have a healthy, productive, and satisfying life.

Fact is we’re losing approximately one-third of our youth to problems such as school failure, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, violence, and suicide.  These are social problems that we each and all have a stake in.  They are a common concern of most all parents, educators, civic leaders, and mental health professionals who believe that developing healthy self-esteem in young people is one of our few effective approaches for reducing such problems.

In conclusion, Slater suggests that developing self-control, responsibility, and critical self-appraisal should be an alternative to developing self-esteem.  What she doesn’t realize is that several years ago Nathaniel Branden identified those same traits as critical steps to developing and retaining healthy self-esteem.  It’s time this debate moves on from whether self-esteem is important to how we use positive research on self-esteem to develop strategies that effectively build a healthy and inclusive society.  Clearly, self-esteem is a topic for serious on-going research.  And for those who dare, it invites us to examine our most basic beliefs about our essential human nature.  Ask youself, are we each and all deserving of a healthy, authentic self-esteem?

About the Authors

Senator John Vasconcellos is a 35-year veteran of the California State Legislature, chair of the Senate Committee on Education, and originator of the California Task Force on Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility.

Robert Reasoner is President of the International Council for Self-Esteem, former school superintendent, and author of Self-Esteem and Youth: What Research Has To Say About It.

Michele Borba, Ed.D., is an educational consultant and author of Building Moral Intelligence and Parents Do Make a Difference.

Len Duhl, M.D., is a psychiatrist, UC Berkeley professor of public health and urban planning, and professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco.

Jack Canfield, M. Ed., is co-author of the  best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul series and Chairs of the Foundation for Self-Esteem in Culver City, California.

[1] Excerpt from Mentors, Masters and Mrs. Mac'Gregor by Jane Bluestein

[2] Source J. Cloud, What Can the Schools Do? Time, May 3, 1999 pp. 38-40

[3] Source Alec Meiklejohn, Education Between Two Worlds

[4] August 1, 1990

[5] Published in Guidepost, February 19, 1987

[6] 1987: 29(2): 130-136

[7] March 15, 1999

[8] April, 1992

[9] Michele Borba, Ed.D., Effectiveness of a School-wide Self-Esteem Program on Elementary Students’  Behavior and Academic Self-Concept, 1992, unpublished

[10] Report delivered by Leon Feinstein, "Economic importance of academic, psychological and behavioral attributes developed in childhood" at the Labour Economics Seminar at the CEP and EEEG Annual Conference, 1999 in Swansea, England.

[11] Nicholas Emlier, Bursting the Self-Esteem Bubble, Psychology Today, April, 2002. P. 16.

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