July 19, 2010 in Features

For today’s youths, there may be a downside to high self-esteem

John Keilman Chicago Tribune
 

Laura Rovi was smart enough to be lazy.

An honor student at York High School in Elmhurst, Ill., she was accustomed to getting an A even when she cruised through a class.

She expected nothing less when she took a government course her sophomore year and let a classmate do all the work on their final group project, an advocacy video warning of the dangers of eating disorders.

This time, though, her lack of effort earned her a C – a mark that produced a curious reaction.

She wasn’t guilty. She wasn’t depressed.

She was insulted.

“This was just in my face,” says Rovi, 18. “I was not used to that.”

Rovi belongs to a generation of teens for whom praise has often come as readily as oxygen. They’ve been bathed from the cradle in affirmations and awards meant to boost their self-esteem – and, by extension, their prospects in life.

But some who research the psychology of teens have concluded that this trend, born of good intentions in the Age of Aquarius, has had toxic effects.

By their estimation, today’s young people have been praised so much that some flail at their first taste of criticism or failure.

Others develop a keen sense of privilege, believing they’ll coast into a golden future regardless of their actual talents, accomplishments or willingness to work.

“There has been a pretty big shift in expectations. Adjusting to reality is going to be different,” says Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor whose research has found soaring teen self-esteem.

Twenge’s conclusion is not universally accepted – other researchers have found no significant changes in self-esteem from previous generations – but it rings true in many schools and homes. And it has some adults asking themselves hard questions.

“It’s this entitlement that is driving many of us crazy. It’s like, where did we go wrong?” says Rita Berger, a West Chicago mother of a teenage son and daughter.

“We’re kind of the root problem. In our attempt to give (this generation) everything, they have not learned to work or appreciate things.”

The self-esteem movement grew out of the work of therapists like Nathaniel Branden, who in the late 1960s wrote that internal negativity could lead to lack of achievement. Change what people think of themselves, he contended, and you can change their destiny.

It was a theory in keeping with the times. Baby boomers were breaking free of traditional social structures to search for fulfillment on their own terms, and the notion of boosting one’s self-esteem fit into that perfectly, Twenge says.

They carried the idea into the way they raised their kids, she says, while schools adopted policies that nurtured children’s emotional well-being. The result, according to decades of data Twenge and her colleagues have mined in their research, is that youth self-esteem has risen sharply over the last 30 years, with a particularly dramatic jump since the late 1980s.

Brittany Gentile, a psychology graduate student at the University of Georgia, found that between 1988 and 2006, the average junior high student’s score on the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (a questionnaire that asks whether respondents agree with such statements as “On the whole, I am satisfied with myself”) jumped nearly four points on a 40-point scale.

The average score for a high school student went up almost two points during a similar span.

Gentile says that while some of the increase could be due to the self-esteem movement, it could also reflect changes in the classroom.

She cites a recent study that found twice as many high school seniors in 2006 reported earning an A average as seniors in 1976.

At the same time, fewer students said they did 15 or more hours of homework each week – meaning teens are getting better grades with less work.

It is here, though, that the case for runaway self-esteem grows murky. Have teens really changed that much? Or are they simply reflecting changes in the world around them?

Take the fixation on grades. Mitchell Levy, who just graduated from Deerfield (Ill.) High School, says he once enlisted his parents’ help to try to change his mark in a Spanish class from an A-minus to an A.

They argued that a student-teacher had been unduly harsh and that the good scores Levy earned when the full-time instructor returned should have received more weight.

The school declined to change the grade, and Levy says he and his parents dropped their challenge.

Looking back, he calls the episode “a little bit ridiculous” but says college entrance requirements have become so competitive and student evaluations so generous that even a tiny blemish can be damaging.

“If grades were harshly done, then it would be OK to get a B. But because grades are so lightly done, it can put you at a disadvantage,” says Levy, who, after being wait-listed at Harvard University, plans to attend the University of Chicago in the fall.

Or take entitlement.

Mike Greene, who as caddy superintendent employs 170 teens at Cantigny Golf in Wheaton, Ill., says some young people live in such material splendor that they have little motivation to work hard.

“There certainly are a lot of kids in this world who are very comfortable,” he says. “I think that’s dangerous. They need to be hungry for something.”

But Heather Nicodemus, who has one son at Grayslake (Ill.) Central High School and two in college, sees it differently.

She says her boys have routinely quit sports, activities and even jobs they felt were unfulfilling. Though it is far different from the way Nicodemus was brought up – “My parents said, ‘Hell no, we paid our $100 (registration fee), you’re not quitting,’ ” she recalled – she finds something admirable about their willingness to walk away.

“If they’re going to work so hard to accomplish something, it should be something they love,” she says, adding that her sons buckle down once they find an activity that interests them.

The ultimate problem with inflated self-esteem, psychology professor Twenge says, is that it can end with a painful reckoning.

Alex Ortiz knows what that feels like. As she grew up in Elmhurst, Ill., softball was her life.

She had played since age 4, adoring the game and the bonds she formed with her teammates. Her e-mail address started with the handle “Softballgrl.”

She was good, too – or so her coaches had always told her. But then she got to York, where claiming a place on the freshman team meant surviving the cuts that followed a three-day tryout.

She didn’t make it. Distraught, she gave up the game.

“I went from being told, ‘You’re good, you’re good,’ to getting told I’m not really good,” says Ortiz, 16, who will be a junior in the fall. “It kind of crushed me. It felt like (earlier coaches) had been lying to me.”

Others, though, say they embraced their reality checks.

Rovi, the lackadaisical honor student, says she soon accepted the fairness of her C, realizing it was a better grade than her minimal effort deserved. It spurred her to work harder, she says, and she ended up graduating as an Illinois State Scholar.

John Reynolds, a sociologist at Florida State University, says that kind of adjustment appears to be common.

Four years ago, he co-wrote a paper showing that high school seniors have increasingly overestimated their chances of earning a bachelor’s degree or working in a professional job. He figured that would lead many unprepared students to drop out of college in a funk of despair.

But when he went back to examine the fallout, he was surprised at what he found: Students who thought they would earn a degree but failed were no more apt to suffer depression than those who succeeded.

That could indicate that their self-esteem is as bulletproof as ever. Or it could mean that getting taken down a few notches doesn’t hurt as badly as some might fear.

“How long can you hold on to unrealistic self-esteem? It wouldn’t last very far into your 20s,” Reynolds says. “The sociological evidence says there are more important things to worry about.”


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