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World Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card January 23, 2005

Self-Esteem and Encouragement

This past week, for the first time, I watched the Gong Show portion of American Idol -- the early rounds of competition, where the pre-screeners let through the best and the most appallingly bad acts so we can be entertained by watching them on television.

What astonished me was not how bad some of the singers were. It was how utterly convinced they were of the excellence of their performance.

Before their audition, they were shouting at the camera, "I'm the next American Idol, baby!"

Now, maybe they were coached to act over-enthusiastic, like contestants on Wheel of Fortune or Family Feud. But even in their calm and dignified moments, they would regard the camera calmly and cheerfully and explain why they were extraordinarily talented and America would love them.

This from people whose voices cried out for a radio to drown them out.

I made a promise to my children years ago -- which I have kept. "I will never let you perform when you aren't ready for an audience."

I've cancelled plays rather than let the actors embarrass themselves.

Apparently some of these American Idol contestants had no one in their lives who would tell them the truth. "Darling, I love you, but you are nowhere near the right pitch. You're tone deaf. You enjoy singing, but nobody else enjoys it when you do."

The truth might hurt at the moment -- but nowhere near as badly as seeing themselves made ridiculous in front of an audience of millions.

Yet I can also understand their friends and family. It's so much easier just to say, "Sure, you're great, you're wonderful" and then change the subject. No confrontation. No moments of unhappiness that you've caused.

Praising people who have done nothing to deserve praise is the lazy, selfish thing to do. It makes them like you while setting them up for embarrassment and failure later.

In the real world, we don't honor basketball players because they're so nice and we like them. We honor and extravagantly reward the players who bring something exceptional onto the court. Like the ability to put a ball through a hoop.

Nor do we reassure bad salesmen that it's not their fault and we'll go ahead and pay them commissions on sales they didn't make. Instead, the cruel marketplace firmly urges them to change their line of work.

I'm not suggesting, not for a moment, that we should be cruel to children. After all, they're young, and we have no idea what they could become as they mature -- especially if they work hard.

I remember when I got a letter from my younger sister while I was a missionary in Brazil. She was a stagestruck youngster when I left, with a thin and reedy voice and an invariable Mary Poppins accent when she sang.

In her letter she asked me, "Do I have the talent to do well in musical theater?"

I'm so glad that I didn't tell her "the truth." Because when I got home I discovered that during my absence, she had matured, she had worked hard, and she was a very good actress and singer with a convincing stage presence.

There's a balance. You don't have to say, "You have no talent" or "That was the weirdest performance I've ever heard," in Simon Cowell fashion.

You can say, "You have a ways to go." You can say, "I'm not an expert, but I think your voice is very small and if you want to be an American Idol you should take lessons and develop some volume."

My siblings and I had the advantage of being raised by the champion praiser of all time. My mother is a one-woman factory of encouragement, not just to us but to everyone around her. She really delights in other people's achievements and is unashamed to tell them.

I think she absorbed at an early age Dale Carnegie's admonition that we be "hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise."

Yet she never flattered anybody.

Because she only praised you for real achievements. She actually has a very sharp critical eye and knows exactly what you're doing badly and what you're doing well.

But she felt no need to tell you the bad stuff -- not right away.

As Miss Manners (Judith Martin) would say, "A child does not need to hear criticism on the day of the performance."

Which includes athletics. You can say, right after the game, "I love the way you charged right in there that time and put the ball right where you wanted it." Even if that was the only moment where the child even approached competent play.

Not till the next day do you need to say, "Would you like to work on dribbling/kicking/shooting/passing/hitting? That seemed to be an area you aren't sure of yet."

The truth is, encouragement and criticism play an important role in a child's development. A child who never hears praise or encouragement is obviously disadvantaged compared to a child whose genuine achievements, however small, are pointed out and respected.

Which one is more likely to be bold, to try things, and to improve?

The trouble is, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the absurd self-esteem movement that has polluted our schools and our public life for the past few decades.


We've always had boosterism: "You can do it!"

Encouragement helps buoy a person's hope so they don't give up.

But the self-esteem movement has gone way beyond that. Claiming to have science on their side, the self-esteemers have insisted that children should receive lavish doses of praise regardless of their performance.

They claim to have science on their side, though whenever I was able to find out what was actually going on in a study that supposedly showed the benefits of self-esteem, it seemed obvious to me that the "science" wasn't science at all.

Of course, this was the world of education and sociology we were talking about, so the standards of scientific rigor were very, very low. It was not surprising that this movement swept through the field of education without any sound science behind it.

One does not question such a "nice" idea as praising children.

Until, finally, somebody does. Roy F. Baumeister, Jennifer D. Campbell, Joachim I. Krueger and Kathleen D. Vohs published an article in the January 2005 Scientific American titled "Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth."

Their method was not so much research as a review of research.

They went through all the published research on self-esteem and immediately eliminated all the studies that depended on self-reporting along.

Here's the problem: If somebody reports that they have a very positive self-image, and then tells you that he is very successful in his job and his social life, what have you actually learned?

That people who have a high opinion of themselves have a high opinion of themselves.


What is needed is some independent measure. Are these people with high self-esteem really successful by some outside standard?

And -- just as important -- are people with low self-esteem really unsuccessful or less successful by real-world measures?

In other words, if a person reports that he is very attractive physically, does anyone else agree with him?

If he says he's going to be the next American Idol, does a panel of judges think he is talented?

And here's what they found:

There is no statistically significant connection between high self-esteem and genuine achievement, ability, or successfulness. Not in the real world.

Except in one area: Making new acquaintances like you. If you have high self-esteem, you're probably a little bit better at making friends (though it's not inevitable -- just slightly more likely).

But what is cause and what is effect in this case? Did self-esteem make you better at making friends, or did your ability to be liked by other people lead to your feeling good about yourself?

In the real world, there are millions of people with depressive personalities, who have low self-esteem despite the fact that they really are attractive or accomplished. So not only is high self-esteem not proof that you're actually good at anything, but also low self-esteem is not proof that you're bad.

So does artificially boosting your self-esteem through endlessly repeated but unearned praise lead to greater achievement later?

No. Quite the contrary. "Some findings even suggest that artificially boosting self-esteem may lower subsequent academic performance."

Here's what works: You teach children the connection between work and achievement.

Great achievements aren't made by feeling good about yourself. They're made by boldness, originality, hard work, painstaking attention to detail, long practice, self-effacing cooperation, reliability, and a host of other attributes and actions.

Whom would you rather hire to work for you? The person who thinks he's wonderful all the time, regardless of what he does, or the person who is always questioning the quality of his own work and trying to do better?

Whom would you rather be married to? The person who is absolutely convinced of his or her attractiveness, or the person whose word is reliable and who is devoted to achieving the same goals as you?

It's nice to have serious scientists put the self-esteem movement through a rigorous examination.

But all it really took was a micron of common sense.

Children aren't stupid. Even stupid children aren't stupid. They know when they're being lied to -- at least at first. Only with endless repetition do they become pathologically self-esteeming.

And even when we do succeed in convincing them that they're wonderful no matter what lousy things they do or how lazy they are, there will come a rude awakening.

They will be in a situation where it matters that they be as good as they think they are -- and to their own shock, they will not be.

On that day, they have a right to complain about the liars who kept them from preparing properly by telling them that they were already as good as they needed to be.


Children need encouragement -- but they also need realistic assessments of their current level of achievement so they know what they need to work on.

The people who know them best and love them most are in the best position to do this.

But teachers who praise all their students equally, regardless of achievement, only make themselves worthless to all their students.

And parents who always take their children's side, certain that no child of theirs could do badly (or do wrong), are really cocooning their children and teaching them that they never have to take responsibility for their own actions.

When you charge into the school and start abusing teachers and staff without finding out first whether the things they are saying about your child's dreadful behavior are true -- well, you're not building your child's self-esteem, you're training him that he can get away with anything because nobody in his life loves him enough to draw any lines or boundaries.

And when you send a friend off to American Idol without ever mentioning that he has never actually sung the same note as the singer on the radio, then you're a pretty lousy friend, aren't you?

Praise real achievements, however small, and you help a child. Praise him regardless of achievement, and you do damage, either to your own credibility or to the child's ability to know himself well enough to improve.

This is so obvious it shouldn't even need saying.

But in the education profession right now, hardly anyone dares to say it openly.

After all, who can be against building children's self-esteem?

Even if our esteem-building is only successful at one thing: Making teachers and parents feel better about themselves, even as they damage children.

Copyright © 2005 by Orson Scott Card.

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