The self-esteem movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s meant well, which is probably the best one can say about it.
But it was based on the falsehood that everyone is special and should feel great about themselves regardless of character or effort. Decoupling self-esteem in this way is disastrous, because self-esteem doesn’t spring into being from nothingness. It is generated by positive character attributes and noble attempts (if not achievements). Like so many things in life, it has to be earned.
When praise is unearned, it is devalued. Most people, even kids, learn to detect insincerity.
As an author of some of the research which likely convinced Vasconcellos to make self-esteem his major policy project in the first place, Baumeister was worried the self-esteemers in California had neglected a fairly straightforward possibility: Maybe it isn’t that high self-esteem causes high performance, but rather the reverse, that people who are more talented or smart or successful have higher self-esteem because of their positive attributes and accomplishments.
In 1989, the task force released its flagship publication, the book The Social Importance of Self-Esteem. This, too, was underwhelming, according to Baumeister. “Boy, they did not find very much,” he said. He also simply couldn’t find any research supporting some of Vasconcellos’s most exciting promises about the power of self-esteem, such as its ostensible potential for reducing violence. “It seemed that this idea had gotten somehow started by accident,” he said. “I could never track down any original statement or source or data suggesting low self-esteem caused aggression.”
Indeed, it’s even worse than that: “…In some areas, high self-esteem actually correlated with worse behavior — some criminals, it turns out, actually view themselves quite favorably.”
Want kids with positive self-regard? Teach them that character matters, demonstrate it, expect it from them, and praise them when they display it. Then do the same for their efforts. Anything else is a sham, and we’ve raised an entire generation that way.