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Doing Well Versus Feeling Good

The Self-Esteem Debate: Why the self-esteem movement has not succeeded in alleviating depression and unhappiness.

In the summer of 2005, a retired British school teacher proposed a rather controversial motion to her union, the Professional Association of Teachers (PAT). Liz Beattie, a thirty-seven-year veteran primary-level instructor, moved that the word failure should be banned from classrooms and replaced with the more palatable phrase “deferred success,” so as not to discourage students from continuing efforts to achieve. Although the motion ultimately experienced its own “deferred success,” it was not without supporters among the 35,000-member teacher’s association. One Wesley Paxton, a member of the PAT Council, expressed his enthusiastic agreement, saying: “It’s time we made the word ‘fail’ redundant and replaced it with ‘please do a bit more.’” The word failure, it seems, is not good for building self-esteem in school children.

The same year, several American newspapers reported that the newest threat to children’s self-esteem was the use of red ink in public schools. According to one Utah paper, parents objected to the use of red ink on the grounds that it was too “stressful.” The school responded by banning the offending color. Now, says the Deseret Morning News, “blue and other colors are in.”

A year earlier, the word from the Boston Globe was that purple reigned supreme. “A mix of red and blue, the color purple embodies red’s sense of authority but also blue’s association with serenity, making it a less negative and more constructive color for correcting student papers, color psychologists said. Purple calls attention to itself without being too aggressive. And because the color is linked to creativity and royalty, it is also more encouraging to students.”

Stories like these are not new, nor are they simply British and American phenomena. Parents and teachers throughout the West have been interested in building self-esteem in children for nearly half a century.

Of course, it isn’t as though the concept of self-esteem wasn’t around before the 1960s. In fact, a Harvard psychologist named William James (brother of novelist Henry James) developed a formula for it as early as 1890. Earlier definitions of self-esteem, however, bear little resemblance to recently popular versions. James suggested that “our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do. It is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities”; and he went so far as to portray this ratio as a literal fraction.


It would be nearly three-quarters of a century before the concept was revisited with any significant interest by another psychologist. But even Stanley Coopersmith, who proposed in 1967 that building self-esteem was a child-rearing necessity, underscored that the parents of children with high self-esteem were the kind who set clear limits and defined high standards of behavior, modeling these by their own examples.

Somewhere in intervening years, however, the “doing well” aspect of building self-esteem seemed gradually to lose ground to the “feeling good” part of the message.

This critical distinction is emphasized by psychologist Martin Seligman in his 1995 book, The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience.

“Armies of American teachers, along with American parents, are straining to bolster children’s self-esteem,” says Seligman. “That sounds innocuous enough, but the way they do it often erodes children’s sense of worth. By emphasizing how a child feels, at the expense of what the child does—mastery, persistence, overcoming frustration and boredom, and meeting challenge—parents and teachers are making this generation of children more vulnerable to depression.”

How could it be that well-meaning attempts to shield children from feeling bad could actually result in more depression rather than less?

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