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.