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Professor Toni Noble dispelled what she considered to be a schoolyard myth, that bullies are those students with low self-esteem. Instead, she reported that research showed that these kids actually have an over-exaggerated sense of self-esteem. Also, there is little correlation between self-esteem and academic achievement. In short, Noble argued that the self-esteem movement has failed.

The lecture was opened with a question – “True or false: kids who bully other kids have a low self esteem?”  ‘False!’. Often bully’s have an inflated view of self worth.

The second true or false question was “Do young people with a high self-esteem perform better academically?” The answer to that was also false and Toni mentioned that this illustrates the failure of the self esteem movement.

Toni defined self-esteem as a person’s self perception and evaluation which is not necessarily reality.  It is conditional, self defeating and ultimately destructive.

In 1995 Seligman found that bolstering self-esteem actually erodes a persons sense of worth because it emphasizes how ones ‘feels’ rather than what ones ‘does’ and that may lead to being vulnerable to depression. For example, a child may feel they are brilliant at sport, but in reality they may be average.  When the realisation comes that they are not brilliant, it can be difficult to process.

Self-esteem is how favourably a person regards himself or herself. It is a perception and evaluation, not reality. Our attempt to boost our kids’ self-esteem might end up eroding their sense of worth. Moreover, increase in self-esteem can also lead to decrease in empathy and increased narcissism. The answer is to focus on self-respect.

What is self-respect?

It involves increase in self knowledge, knowing one’s strengths that have to be evidence-based and not just “good at everything.” Self management is the second of the six traits that characterised self-respect. It is the putting into action our ethical values. Self confidence is to not let self-doubt get in our way. Self trust involves trusting our judgement and still be open to other’s inputs. Self protection is to not let others or ourselves to harm ourselves. Respect for others, which is quite self-explanatory, rounds up the qualities of self respect.

Noble’s message: educate our children in self respect, not self-esteem. You can’t have too much self respect, but you can have too much self-esteem.

Professor Toni Noble, leading educator and educational psychologist with expertise in student wellbeing and positive school communities.

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