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We turn today to the self-esteem curriculum that Jean Twenge, in her fine and important book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before sees as one of the culprits for some of the issues we see in what she calls “Generation Me” or “iGens.”

Why she asks did children’s self-esteem increase — according to social science studies about self-esteem — so dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s? “The short answer is that they were taught it.” The Boomers thought children should always feel good about themselves. The iGens are “the first generation raised [reared, Jean, reared] to believe that everyone should have high self-esteem” (53). She illustrates this with a book called The Lovables in the Kingdom of Self-Esteem. In this book the gates swing open if you say “I’m lovable!” three times. She mentions Al Franken’s character Stuart Smalley.

How do we teach self-esteem without it turning into self-preoccupation, self-importance, or narcissism?


It’s at least clear to me that Twenge is not against healthy self-esteem and self-confidence. She’s concerned with it leading to narcissism. “Boomer children,” she notes, “in the 1950s and 1960s gained self-esteem naturally from a stable, child-friendly society; GenMe’s self-esteem has been actively cultivated for its own sake” (55). It’s inherent now to public education — she found 308,000 items on Google in January 2006 for “elementary school mission statement self-esteem.” The educational trend, she observes, is on self-esteem regardless of accomplishment.

Twenge also questions that there is any data that support the view that adolescent girls lose self-esteem. The major study on this concluded that the difference in self-esteem between adolescent boys and girls is less than 4%. Her own study of 105,318 people showed that the difference is more that male self-esteem rises a bit faster in adolesence than does that of females. By college the differences are minimal. She thinks adolescent girls do not have a self-esteem problem (61).

Twenge critiques educational programs that don’t offer enough critical feedback to children out of fear of damaging self-esteem. One expression: grade inflation. In 2004, 48% of American college freshmen — reported having an A average in high school. In 1968, that number was 18%. 70% of college freshmen said their academic ability was above average — “an amusing demonstration of American youths’ self-confidence” (64).

Do you think this matters?

Kids with high self-esteem do not get any better grades. In fact, and this is big for her, good grades enhance self-esteem and this leads to one of her major points: self-esteem (as she seems to be using it) needs to be rooted more in performance. Self-esteem “isn’t linked to academic achievement, good behavior, or any other outcome the [California] Task Force was formed to address” (65).

She thinks it is better to focus on skills. She believes we should forget self-esteem and focus instead on self-control and self-discipline. Self-esteem is an outcome not a cause.

She admits that the self-esteem curriculum might help a small minority of kids who have bad self-esteem.

Her conclusion is that the self-esteem curriculum is producing too much narcissism. Her studies show increasing scores in typical narcissistic behaviors and attitudes. In 2006, the average college student scored higher in narcissism than 65% of students in 1987. She’s worried about training an army of narcissists than building self-esteem.

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