Two Types of Self Esteem

Interesting discussion in class today. My partner was innocently describing a new Seattle Public Schools policy that requires students to maintain a 2.0 or “C” average. Related to that policy, teachers are required to assign “N’s” (no credit) to low performing students rather than “F’s”. Students who earn an “N” have to repeat the course if it’s required for graduation, but their grade point average isn’t altered.

This set off a fair number of our middle and high school teachers in training who expressed genuine frustration that this was further evidence that today’s students are coddled unnecessarily.

I was intrigued because many of them are products of the helicopter parent, child-centered, CA Self Esteem Commission generation.  

In their view students need to be woken up and held far more accountable for their lack of effort. In arguing that point they referenced not only the students’ future unsympathetic employers, but the U.S.’s declining status in the world.  

As I listened, I thought about two types of self esteem, the superficial kind that is fleeting and the substantive kind that is lasting.  

I also thought about our recently held convocation, a traditional “first day of the academic year” celebration. There I stood in my academic gown with my colleagues clapping for the 700+ first year students as they paraded into the gym.

Since they hadn’t really done anything to warrant our adulation, my students would probably argue that was a fitting act of closure to their previous eighteen years of being coddled.  (Truth be told, it was their parents or financial benefactors who deserved our applause.)  

Superficial, fleeting self esteem is the result of being acknowledged, affirmed, adored, over and over.  No one is cut from the team, everyone gets the award, smile stickers all around. Positive encouragement is important, but substantive, lasting self esteem is the result of an evolving sense of efficacy. It’s the growing recognition that “I can do things that matter.”

I can read fluently, I can make music, I can speak a second language, I can write clearly, I can lead a small group, I can resolve problems peacefully, I can swim long distances, I can design a website, I can cook a meal, I can hit a backhand, I can rebuild an engine, I can make a positive difference in my community.

As one becomes increasingly competent in those types of activities, they become less dependent on public praise. Genuine self esteem is liking oneself not because idle praise is constantly ringing in one’s ears, but because there’s a quiet self confidence. No need to tell me I’m so wonderful all the time because I know I’m good at several things that matter.  

Young people with this quiet confidence aren’t nearly as desperate for peer approval and they’re more comfortable spending time by themselves.

Substantive, lasting self esteem results from a team effort—supportive family members, hardworking teachers, caring coaches, and other adults helping young people develop and refine meaningful skills.

And it’s an incredibly valuable gift that lasts a lifetime.

5 thoughts on “Two Types of Self Esteem

  1. I actually think there is a third self esteem that is even deeper: knowing that you are intrinsically loved and a valuable person no matter what you do or accomplish. Our western society puts too much emphasis on what you do and not enough on what you think and believe. It should not matter to a kids self esteem if they get an “F” because it is only a grade. It should also not matter that a kid have a gzillion activities, sports and AP classes on their college resume, which only shows that they can multitask but shows little of their internal character and beliefs. Its only school.

  2. I am so glad to have found your blog, I agree completely. People gain self-esteem by learning that they can deal effectively with situations and overcome obstacles. They do not gain real self-esteem by simply gaining praise and compliments.

  3. very true. your thinking relates not only to students in the classroom but equally to people in the pew (not that we have pews but it makes my point perfectly poetic). Too many find satisfaction in the feel good elements of faith without considering the necessity of doing.

  4. It appears as if you are saying that self esteem can be either intrinsic or extrinsic and that extrinsic self esteem is an undesirable outcome for any student. I suppose the question then is how self esteem progresses in the individual from the extrinsic to the intrinsic. and how we maximize the intrinsic outcome.

    You make the claim that intrinsic self esteem is derived from a sense of efficacy and “I can do things that matter” however how would one know how much reinforcement is too much, when does it reach the point of being “superficial”. If you are left with the choice to praise versus not to praise desirable behavior or outcomes should not your default position be to offer the positive reinforcement and let the intrinsic self esteem (in itself an emergent quality) be left to flourish on it’s own?

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