FROM THE DIRECTOR'S DESK Self-Esteem - the Phantom Angel

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Since the liberated Vietnam War era, child development specialists and mental health professionals have touted the importance of a healthy self-esteem (SE). The onset of the baby boomer genera-tion accelerated 'it'. Now, we talk about SE in similar reverence as the old Freudian 'ego' and 'super-ego', a life in itself that is capable of doing good or bad deeds and needs to be stroked and nurtured.

Further extrapolation from this elusive concept gives us the anti-matter of SE: the feared Low Self-Esteem, which is supposedly responsible for many emotional/ behavioral problems. We target 'it' as the culprit for acting out, for depression, for anti-social behavior, and for many learning and school problems. Naturally, improving SE becomes the solu-tion.

This emphasis of SE led to the creation of the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility in 1986 by the California Legislature. It conducted a three-year study of the topic, at taxpayers' expense. Self-Esteem movement has now almost become an institution among therapists, child psycho-logists, educa-tors, self-help books publi-shers, and parents. We even have a National Association for Self-Esteem, headquartered at, of all places, Normal, Illinois.

Yet history and careful research of the topic tell us otherwise. Previous generations of children seemed to have done fine or better without ever thinking of high or low SE. We used to look at the cause of emotional/ behavioral malice much more straightfor-wardly without resorting to the deep-seeded cause of a poor SE. Children grew up with fewer excuses for misbehaving, and more humble ("less assertive" and "less secure" in modern day parlance). Nowadays, we gingerly reason with our kids so as not to hurt their SE, and we praise our kids any chance we have so as to build up their SE.

We used to be able to tell our kids straight what was wrong with them, but now we tell children to "believe in themselves" and to think "any-thing is possible as long as they have the will to want it." And the worse sin we tell them? "Give up."

But if we look more critically, we found no evidence that supports the idea of the elusive SE being the cause of human good or ills. Instead, SE is just like the old Freudian Id and Libido, illusive concepts invented to explain human emotions. Indeed, the culling of SE often breeds unrealistic confidence and ready defiance in children.

Many high SE children learn to think that they are never wrong. They become quick to excuse themselves for shortcomings, and resist adult authorities. I work with many students who have high regards for themselves and their life style while failing school miserably. On the other hand, I have students who constantly wonder if their teachers like them or if they will do well in their next exam but are in reality straight 'A' students.

Likewise, if we look at adults, we see no shortage of highly confident, self-aggrandizing criminals and toughs, and plenty of self-doubting famous performers and scientists.

What am I saying? There are no correlations between low SE and failures, and between high SE and happiness. Even the normally liberal New York Times observed: "D" students, it turns out, think as highly of themselves as valedictorians, and serial rapists are no more likely to ooze with insecurities than doctors or bank managers. Now that's pertinent observations!

Nobody should argue against having a hopeful, positive view of one's own actions and personality. It might help a person to persist in adversities or facilitates achievement. But too much emphasis of it allows excuses or unrealistic confidence in oneself and could actually deter change for the better. It's time we realize that SE in itself is not the panacea for im-provement. Knowledge, skills, discipline, as well as a realistic understanding of limitations are the real ingredients for positive changes.

As Dr. Roy F. Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University puts it, "I think we had a great deal of optimism that high self-esteem would cause all sorts of positive consequences, and that if we raised self-esteem people would do better in life. Mostly, the data have not borne that out."

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