Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Self-esteem gap

[This is an  old post but I don't think it's lost any relevance]

Michelle Rhee was on Marketplace yesterday. She's worried about all the coddling and empty praise we've been heaping on our children.
We've lost our competitive spirit. We've become so obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves that we've lost sight of building the skills they need to actually be good at things.

I can see it in my own household. I have two girls, 8 and 12, and they play soccer. And I can tell you that they suck at soccer! They take after their mother in athletic ability. But if you were to see their rooms, they're adorned with ribbons, medals and trophies. You'd think I was raising the next Mia Hamm.

I routinely try to tell my kids that their soccer skills are lacking and that if they want to be better, they have to practice hard. I also communicate to them that all the practice in the world won't guarantee that they'll ever be great at soccer. It's tough to square this though, with the trophies. And that's part of the issue. We've managed to build a sense of complacency with our children.

Take as a counterpoint South Korea, where my family is originally from. In Korea, they have this culture that focuses on always becoming better. Students are ranked one through 40 in their class and everyone knows where they stand. The adults are honest with kids about what they're not good at and how far they have to go until they are number one. Can you imagine if we suggested anything close to that here? There would be anarchy.
This is an old and much loved refrain in the reform movement, but when you look closely and take the time to disaggregate the data the argument completely collapses. The problem is that the culture of esteem-building Rhee describes is essentially a suburban phenomena. In poor neighborhoods, the situation is exactly the opposite:
Hart and Risley also found that, in the first four years after birth, the average child from a professional family receives 560,000 more instances of encouraging feedback than discouraging feedback; a working- class child receives merely 100,000 more encouragements than discouragements; a welfare child receives 125,000 more discouragements than encouragements.
Other words, our best performing schools are filled with kids who, according to Rhee, should be complacent and lacking competitive spirit while most of the kids in our worst performing schools have received little of the empty praise that so concerns her.

Perhaps we should worry less about the exaggerated self opinions of students and more about that of our pundits and commentators.


  1. You want kids to be ready for life when they leave school. Although they need to be resilient and skilled at 18, the optimal strategy for making them resilient and skilled may be to coddle them at 12 and 13. I don't think the optimal strategy is to be tough with them from age 5 - it's more likely to make them give the sport away as soon as they can.

    That's especially true in sport where you sometimes can't tell how good the kid is going to be until they come out of puberty, especially for boys.

    The small boy who hangs in there at 12 because the game is fun and he gets a lot of positive messages may turn out to be the star player at 21 when he's 6'5'' and 100kg. But if he's given negative messages at 12 so that he gives the game away then his potential is unlikely to be realised.

  2. That is an important distinction. I don't know if I'd use the word 'coddle' but it is particularly important to build up kids when they're young.