High self-esteem, especially in the modern culture, is not a purely good thing as you might believe. A lot of things have to change.

Take a ride in a glass elevator, from ground level to rooftop in a single ride. How do you feel?

If you’re like most people, you feel – no surprise here – like you’re on top of the world. You feel good about yourself and believe in your ability to overcome any obstacle and conquer every challenge. The only downside is – well, going down. By the time you get to the bottom, not only have your feelings of grandeur evaporated, but now you feel a bit puny, somewhat insignificant, and less than capable.

But wait! You can save yourself the effort. Researchers have discovered that you can awaken the same responses by merely imagining yourself soaring skyward or plummeting earthward. With a little visualization, you can create your own mood.

But what happens next?


That’s what Max Ostinelli, David Luna, and Torsten Ringbergat wanted to find out. The three University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, psychologists had people imagine themselves rising up into the sky, then asked them to solve a series of SAT-style math problems. With all that positive and high self-esteem pumping up their neural pathways, certainly, their performance should have increased significantly. Right?

Wrong. They did worse. A lot worse. In fact, the performance gap between those who had their self-esteem artificially inflated and those who had theirs artificially diminished was between 20 and 30 percent.

As Max Ostinelli explains to NPR,

“When we boost self-esteem in this way, people are motivated to maintain their high self-esteem. So they say, well, I’ll withdraw from the task.”

In other words, when we know that our feelings of accomplishment are unearned or undeserved, our defense mechanism kicks in to protect our fragile bubble of fantasy from the nasty pinprick of reality. Conversely, when we feel we have to prove ourselves, an inner voice prompts us to engage and persevere rather than sit around wallowing in our feelings of inadequacy.


The research team repeated the experiment with a different task, this time, shopping for a cell phone plan. And once again, the people who felt good about themselves put less effort into their research and chose poorer plans, while the subjects who needed to restore their self-image investigated more carefully and found better deals.

Perhaps this helps explain a trend that I’ve seen growing in my classroom for years: no fear of failing. Or, more accurately, no concern about failing. More and more, there is less and less worry over the consequences of academic or personal failure. Haven’t done your homework? Haven’t studied for your exam? Haven’t scored above 50% on any assignment for an entire semester? Join the Alfred E. Neuman club and take up his mantra of, “What, me worry?”


It’s not because high-schoolers think they’ll become the next Bill Gates, dropping out of Harvard in order to acquire half the planet. (They barely know who Bill Gates is anymore.) It’s not because they think their parents have spread out a safety net to catch them. (Their parents are often barely able to support themselves.) It’s because they aren’t thinking at all.

But they still feel great about themselves. They’ve wiped out legions of space invaders, commanded armies of angry birds, and gathered enough crushed candy to make the entire Indian subcontinent diabetic. And when they lose, there are no consequences. They just click play again and start all over.

Parents aren’t merely allowing our children to be irresponsible; they’re encouraging irresponsibility. Bad behavior is the teacher’s fault. Missing homework is the ex-husband’s fault. Poor performance is the curriculum’s fault. Needless to say, parents can’t withhold their privileges; that might damage their self-image. Everything is negotiable as long as little Johnny has high self-esteem.


But he doesn’t. Like going up in a glass elevator, he knows he hasn’t done anything of real value, no matter how many “likes” he gets by posting his Candy Crush score on Facebook. But neither he nor his parents will risk his bubble of good feeling by taking stock of his wasted potential.

To be fair, this generation’s fixation on high self-esteem and feel-good education is a reaction to the overly-strict style of the past. “Don’t smile before Thanksgiving,” my vice-principal warned me as a novice teacher. “It’s always easier to loosen up than it is to tighten up.”

Which isn’t necessarily bad advice. But too little praise and unreasonably high expectations can destroy children even faster than undeserved accolades and leave them unchallenged. Ultimately, good teaching, like good parenting, requires constant recalibration and perpetual shifting between the extremes of facilitator and enforcer, counselor and controller, cheerleader and drill sergeant.

That being said, when our young charges’ feelings become more important to us than their futures, then we have truly failed them. Similarly, when adults abandon the role of authority or disciplinarian in an effort to become children’s “friends,” the children themselves can sense that they have no one to lead them.


As lower standards and diminished expectations increasingly become the norm, it’s hard to imagine how things are going to get any better. Having created a culture of mediocrity, how do we change the message, especially after we’ve bought into it ourselves?

But we have to try. And here are a few ways we can start:

  • reserve praise for real accomplishments
  • make rewards, like allowances and special privileges, dependent upon responsibility
  • most important, expect more from ourselves so that our children have models to teach them that just good enough just isn’t good enough.

In the end, the only way we are going to change our culture is if we ourselves are willing to change.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. nashrah aziz

    An ideal nation is small and with few people. Although there are abundant weapons, there is no need for the use.
    Let the people cherish their life and not pursue after fame and wealth, So that they have no intention to move to faraway places. Although there are boats and carriages, no one will ride them. Although there are weapons and armors, there is no occasion to display them. Let the people return to the ancient simple life where knotting ropes were used to record every event. People would then enjoy the simple food, simple clothing, and be contented with a simple life. And they shall live happily with the traditional customs. Neighbors of the nations overlook one another in the near distance. The barks of dogs and crowing of cocks can be heard. Yet people are so contented that they enjoy their life without ever visiting each other.

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