Future Reflections          Fall 2007

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Of Self-Esteem, Expectations, and Performance


Editor’s Note: Too much self-esteem? Is that possible, especially for blind kids? That was one of the intriguing topics discussed this past summer on <teachvib@nfbnet.org>, a listserve sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind for teachers and other interested in the education of blind and visually impaired children. It started when Heather Field of Tennessee posted a mainstream article that challenged our culture’s assumptions about the importance of self-esteem. The article is called “Too Much Self-Esteem Can Be Bad for Your Child,” by Andrew Lam, New America Media, July 10, 2007 (see <http://www.alternet.org/story/56230/>). Ms. Field, a blind woman and former educator from Australia, is a frequent contributor to conversation threads on the NFB listserves for parents (<blindkid@nfbnet.org>) and teachers (<teachvib@nfbnet.org>). Her wide-ranging knowledge, astute insights, and capacity to think outside the box generate many lively and thoughtful exchanges. Beginning in the same order that the comments are posted, that is, with the most recent response listed first, here is the short, slightly edited conversation thread followed lastly by the article that generated the discussion:

Heather Field (right) believes expectations should not be compromised in the guise of feel-good but unearned praise. Mindy Lipsey, <Mindy_lipsey@yahoo.com>
July 12, 2007
Subject: Too Much Self-Esteem Can Be Bad for Your Child

It’s interesting that you mention this. My visually impaired son attended Space Camp last September. The instructors praised the children for accomplishing the same thing sighted children do every week at the camp. I disagreed when they called blind children special and amazing for sitting in a simulator machine, or for rock climbing in the indoor facility.

Let’s be proud of our kids for truly amazing accomplishments. My expectations for my two visually impaired children are obviously much higher than the general public. I guess I’m learning what most of you already know!


H. Field, <missheather@comcast.net>
July 12, 2007
Subject: Too Much Self-Esteem Can Be Bad for Your Child

Hello everyone:

Here’s a very interesting article (see below). All too often our blind children are praised as being marvelous just for doing something that’s far below the performance expectations of their sighted peers. When blind kids know that they aren’t doing what their peers are doing, what a strange effect this must have on their self-concepts.

I do agree with this article, particularly as I come from, and taught for years in, Australia. We Australians shake our heads in disbelief at the trend in American schools, sporting teams, and other cultural institutions where people emphasize self-esteem, and where the goal to make children feel good about themselves is often at the expense of a good strong dose of reality.

This robs children of the opportunity to make accurate decisions about their abilities, and distorts their understanding of the effort required from them to achieve their goals. No wonder they are angry, blame others, and drop out when they find that life in the real world is very hard, and that people don’t like them, or at least don’t like them long enough to build a relationship. This generation has to do a lot of work to learn coping skills now that they’re out of school and dealing with real life and the logical consequences of the choices they make.

I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Heather Field

Too Much Self-Esteem Can Be Bad for Your Child

by Andrew Lam
New America Media, July 10, 2007

In the age of MySpace, YouTube, and Google Earth, the space between East and West seems to shrink. But in the area of self-perception, especially, there remains a cultural gap that can often be as wide as the ocean.

Take Jeong-Hyun Lim, a twenty-four-year-old business student in Seoul. Popularly known as Funtwo on YouTube, his rock rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon has turned him into a global phenomenon. Lim’s dizzying sweep-picking--sounding and muting notes at breakneck speed--has had some viewers calling him a second Hendrix. His video has been viewed on YouTube twenty-four million times so far.

But Funtwo himself is self-effacing, a baseball cap covering much of his face. No one knew who he was until Virginia Heffernan wrote about him in the New York Times last August. She called his anti-showmanship distinctly Asian, adding that “sometimes an element of flat-out abjection even enters into this act, as though the chief reason to play guitar is to be excoriated by others.”

Anyone in the West with this kind of media spotlight and Internet following would hire an agent and make a CD. But Lim told Heffernan, “I am always thinking that I’m not that good a player and must improve more than now.” In another interview, he rated his playing around fifty or sixty out of one-hundred. Lim’s modesty is reassuringly Asian, echoing the famous Chinese saying: “Who is not satisfied with himself will grow.”

In a classic 1992 study, psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler compared academic skills of elementary school students in Taiwan, China, Japan, and the United States. It showed a yawning gap in self-perception between East and West. Asian students outperformed their American counterparts, but when they were asked to evaluate their performances, American students evaluated themselves significantly higher than those from Asia. “In other words, they combined a lousy performance with a high sense of self-esteem,” noted Nina H. Shokraii, author of School Choice 2000: What’s Happening in the States, in an essay called “The Self-Esteem Fraud.”

Since the eighties, self-esteem has become a movement widely practiced in public schools, based on the belief that academic achievements come with higher self-confidence. Shokraii disputes that self-esteem is necessary for academic success. “For all of its current popularity, however, self-esteem theory threatens to deny children the tools they will need in order to experience true success in school and as adults,” writes Shokraii.

A quarter of a century later, a comprehensive new study released last February from San Diego State University maintains that too much self-regard has resulted in college campuses full of narcissists. In 2006, researchers said, two-thirds of the students had above-average scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory evaluation, thirty percent more than when the test was first administered in 1982.

Researchers like San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, worried that narcissists “are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors.”

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