The feel-good-about-yourself factor

Muddled thinking about how to encourage a child's self-esteem is an easy target for right-wing critics. But they are putting at risk an important concept
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The Independent Online
I can see it coming. It's already started in the United States, which is a sure sign of the future for us. Chris Woodhead, of Ofsted, and Nick Tate, of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, have both huffed and puffed on the subject but have now gone quiet. Perhaps they felt they had spoken too soon. Perhaps, like the butterflies of chaos theory, they are waiting for the vibrations to magnify in their own good time. If so, now is the moment to confront the fainthearts before the zephyr of scepticism becomes a hurricane and wipes out what has so far been achieved.

I'm talking about self-esteem. Two books have recently appeared in the US that will act as beacons for the sceptics here: Dumbing Down Our Kids: why American children feel good about themselves but can't read, write or add, and Greater Expectations: overcoming the culture of indulgence in America's homes and schools.

Just as the majority of education practitioners and academics in Britain are accepting that a positive self-image is almost a pre-condition for effective learning, motivation, commitment and even good discipline, a handful of others are arguing that it is precisely this "trendy" obsession with self-esteem that has brought about the "decline" in academic standards, the "collapse" of classroom discipline and the perceived moral relativism. They can't both be right. Or can they? If the bathwater needs changing, can we agree that the baby is worth holding on to?

I have to declare my colours. For me it is central that unless children believe they are liked and likeable, are proud of themselves and their skills, and feel they have some significance and control over their lives, they will find it hard to commit to learning and therefore to do themselves justice. It is also true that children who are in emotional turmoil, who cannot look comfortably on their past or have any faith or trust in themselves or their future, tend to live defensively and for the moment.

Effective learning requires both mastery and continuity. Crucially, it also involves taking risks. Parents or teachers who criticise and denigrate, undermine and humiliate, produce hostile, resentful and brittle children. Unless children have a measure of self-worth and self-belief, they are not able to open themselves up to the challenge of learning and accept or, more important, process the mistakes that are part and parcel of it.

Having said this, the critics have a point. Fuzzy thinking about self- esteem can do children a disservice. In the United States, the self-esteem movement is being held responsible for watered-down curricula and inflated grades, with children's real self-worth being damaged not by criticism and challenge but by hollow praise and weak expectations. If everything a child does is easy and praiseworthy, how can they feel achievement or know how to improve? End-of-year school reports are prime examples of this trend. If parents feel patronised by weasel words, surely children do too. Might we be undermining children's self-esteem in the very process of trying to protect it?

Yes, through two misconceptions. One is the view that positive self-esteem exists independently of skills and abilities. Although with very young children it starts out that way, self-worth is certainly topped up through actual accomplishments and real challenges overcome. "I'm special because I'm me," will soon ring hollow if there is nothing to back it up. The achievements don't have to be exclusively academic. Indeed, success in another field can be the key to renewed confidence and success in school. But, other things being equal, children will feel better about themselves if they can read and write when most other children are able to, and schools should ensure that they can.

The second problem concerns attitudes to praise and criticism, success and failure. Current educational practice views praise as wholly positive and criticism as negative: successes are celebrated and mistakes and failures ignored. Yet what children - and parents - need is not phoney feedback. They need accurate and neutral information about the strengths and weaknesses of their work that signposts the room for improvement, encourages personal responsibility for outcomes and develops appropriate self-judgement and self-knowledge. The relevant dimension for praise, criticism, challenge and failure is not positive-negative but constructive-destructive. Criticism can be constructive, and praise can be destructive. Challenge, if it is achievable but at a stretch, enervates; and mistakes and failure, instead of being shunned, always provide opportunities for reviewing and learning.

In the US, the baby remains firmly in the bath. "There is nothing wrong with self-esteem," says one of the book's authors, "but it has to be linked to achievement." Over here, however, "self-esteem" could well be dumped by the new education right along with other child-sensitive policies already in their sight. If back to basics isn't to mean back to barbarity, it's time for second thoughts.

'Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in American Homes' by William Damon (The Free Press). 'Dumbing Down Our Kids' by Charles J Sykes (St Martin's Press).

Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer is author of 'Positive Parenting: Raising Children with Self-esteem', and of the forthcoming 'Motivating Your Child', both from Mandarin.


Examples of encouraging but 'real' feedback

What a lovely story. I like your ideas and the ending makes me laugh. Stories are always more interesting to read if they include what the characters are thinking and feeling as well as saying; so next time, I'd like you to tell us something about everyone's feelings and reactions. I know you can do that. Do you think you can? Good. I look forward to reading it.

There's lots in this report that you should be pleased with. For example, it's good that you're listening better in lessons and that your homework's not late any more. Well done. I'm, very happy with it. I'm surprised, though, that you didn't do better in maths and science. I thought you were more comfortable with them now. If you know what you find difficult, we can try to find a friend or neighbour who can explain it again before term starts. Do you think the report's fair? Are you pleased with it?

Sorry. I don't call this a tidied room. You've done well to put all your clothes and toys away but you're going to have to sort out that pile of paper and comics in the corner too before we invite a friend round. You can show it off to me when it's done and I'll bring you a cold drink to celebrate.

I am happy to take you shopping with me but to be honest I wasn't happy with how you behaved this time. It's not on for you to badger me constantly about having something to eat and then to nag about missing a TV programme. I usually enjoy your company but I won't take you again if there's going to be a repeat performance.

Those answers are good, so you have clearly understood the passage. But you have spoilt this homework by rushing it. It is hard to read and I know you can spell better than that. I'd like you to read it through again, marking which words you now think you misspelt, check and correct them if necessary. And next time, I will want to see better handwriting and presentation.

This is much better. Well done. You got 12 sums right this time, which is much better than eight last time. Have a look at the four I've marked as wrong. See if you're making the same kind of mistake each time.