Meanwhile, kids who failed were less likely to have good relationships or be employed. They were, however, more likely to have gone to jail.
Mischel elaborates on some of this research -- and how both children and adults can master self regulation -- in his highly acclaimed book, The Marshmallow Test: Why Self Control is the Engine of Success:
You know what they "teach" instead?
Instead of letting children develop self-esteem on their own, through hard work, SMART goal setting, improvement and achievement... teachers force it upon their students as an exercise in and of itself.
Take, for example, Self Science: The Emotional Intelligence Curriculum, a two-year, 54 lesson program for teaching self-esteem (and, to be fair, other emotional skills) to elementary school students. This contains exercises such as the self-esteem roll call game: when the teacher calls out your name during attendance, you don't answer by saying, "Here," but by saying either:
- "I love myself because..."
- "Yes, I love myself, even though sometimes I..."
The exercises are designed to be either standalone lessons, or integrated with the students' academic classes.
A quick Google search will turn up hundreds of similar programs, lesson plans, videos, books, curricula and exercises that are meant to "build" students' self-esteem.
If that weren't bad enough, schools have taken several well-intentioned (but ultimately harmful) measures to "protect" students' self-esteem. For example, many schools have become anti-competition zones -- games with winners and losers are no longer acceptable, in spite of the fact that decades of psychology research show that competition is an important and healthy part of every child's development.
When competition is inevitable, such as during athletic contests, all students "win" a participation award. Schools -- even high schools -- are getting rid of honor rolls, because it's not "fair" to those who don't make it. (And, yes, I understand that getting an A isn't the same as learning. But it is still important for students to have goals and rewards for their hard work. See also: Straight As Make You Look Complacent, Not Curious.)
According to Roy F. Baumeister et al.'s 2003 meta-analysis, Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness or Healthier Lifestyles,
No. There is no relationship between high self-worth and achievement.
In fact, high self-regard is commonly found in narcissists, bullies and sociopaths. People with high, unwarranted self-esteem often have an inflated sense of popularity and likability. They get hostile when criticized or rejected. They alienate others.
So is self-esteem good for anything?
The best answer is... Maybe.
There is a correlational relationship between happiness and self-esteem, but, remember: correlation is not causation. We don't know if happy people have higher self-esteem, or if self-esteem makes people happier.
We also don't know if this relationship is even true -- after all, happiness and self-worth are measured by self-report. I love psychology, and I spent a lot of time studying it. I often cite studies that use self-report, but it's still a limiting method. People can, and often, say one thing, when they mean the other. In this case, studies suggest that people with high self-regard exaggerate their positive qualities.
Meaning there isn't necessarily any benefit at all to high self-esteem.
But you know what there is a benefit to? Mindfulness. As I wrote in How One Rapper Brought a Whole 5th Grade Classroom to Tears:
"Mindfulness, particularly early in life when neuroplasticity is at its peak, has the potential of helping children pursue a trajectory of healthy development," wrote Richard Davidson, founder of CIHM and a professor of psychology and psychiatry.
In a time when student mental health is at an all-time low (and student obesity is at an all-time high), mindfulness is exactly what kids should be learning. Plus, it's an awesome way to prevent them from turning into mindless hoop jumpers. And, eventually, these kids might become experts at thinking themselves happy.
Tools of the Mind teaches focus and self-control; perspective taking; communication; making connections; critical thinking; embracing challenges; and learning through play (which is the most important possible kind of learning -- after all, Einstein didn't use flashcards).
These seven skills are, according to Mind in the Making author Ellen Galinsky, the essential life skills every child needs. Moreover, as Mischel's research demonstrated, they are the skills that are most likely to make your child happy -- for the rest of their life.
And, on a broader scale, the self-regulation/mindfulness approach is much more likely to help close the achievement gap... than "giving" kids self-esteem that kids of previous generation earned.