Self-Esteem: Part 2

April 12, 2009

Last time I discussed Emler (2001)’s review of the research about self-esteem. I observed that it simply did not fit with any of the claims made by those who think that we can improve behaviour through raising self-esteem. However, it is only showing that the empirical research confirms what common sense told us all along. Human beings do not form their opinions of themselves independently of how they think others perceive them. They might be wrong about the judgements of others, but nobody thinks “I’m great, everybody will hate me” or “I’m worthless, but everybody who meets me will really admire me”. If you have low self-esteem you will fear the attention of the crowd not seek it out. Apart from those who misbehave where everyone misbehaves, badly behaved students at the very least think they deserve to be a centre of attention or that they should get their way over others. This is not a sign of low self-esteem, although doesn’t have to show boundless self-confidence. It is often the act of a mediocre character trying to become A Big Deal. If they do not already think they are better or more important than everyone else, then at the very least they believe they are talented enough to convince others that they are. The only common ground between those with low self-esteem and the badly behaved is that they both wish to be approved of by the pack. But there is a world of difference between wanting enough approval to be accepted and wanting enough approval to be the leader of the pack. The former involves trying to fit in, and the latter involves trying to stand out. A badly behaved student might misbehave to get more attention, but not because they feel insignificant in themselves, but because they want to be the most significant person in the room.

If we are in the business of denying human nature we would grasp every opportunity to see poor self-esteem as a motive for wrongdoing. Once we start doing this then it soon becomes easy to collect evidence. Every sign of dissatisfaction a student shows about their place or their achievement will be seen as a sign that they see themselves as inferior rather than that they aspire to be superior. If a disruptive attention-seeking child becomes enthusiastic about the work when they are doing well we will see it as evidence that they are gaining confidence rather than because they have seen another route to attention. If an irritating squib of a child acts like they are the king of the universe we will imagine they are acting that way because they are compensating for their own inadequacies, rather than because they have delusional confidence in their own strengths. Most of the time when a teacher concludes that a badly behaved boy must secretly hate himself what the teacher actually feels that he should hate himself if he has any sense. Attention-seekers are not secretly shy, any more than bullies are actually cowards. Unfortunately, the appeasers find the observation that troublemakers need to be taken down a peg, not built up any further, to be too cruel. They imagine that a swaggering, arrogant child is showing deep insecurity and fear. Like a conspiracy theorist or a Flat-Earther, they would refuse to accept what was in front of them, if it did not fit in with the cosy worldview where every child in the classroom is a victim and nobody (except perhaps the teacher) is a villain.

As ever, approaches to behaviour based on a denial of what human beings are like are spectacularly ineffective. Students whose behaviour is meant to be a result of low self-esteem are never cured by intervention. Praise and attention work only in so far as they appease, and like all appeasement it comes at a price which isn’t worth paying. Worse, if it becomes accepted that a student is behaving badly because of low self-esteem then it is assumed that any teacher they misbehave for must be undermining their confidence. By taking such a position those managers who are most willing to talk about the confidence of students are often the most willing to destroy confidence in teaching staff. Disastrously, teachers will be expected to praise those who are least deserving of it and blamed when those students still don’t behave. Justice takes another step back in the face of cod psychology.

So far I have concentrated mainly on the attempts to raise the self-esteem of the badly behaved. Self-esteem is also often adopted as a more general aim of education. The new National Curriculum lists among its aims the intention of creating “Confident individuals [who] have a sense of self-worth and personal identity”. It has been suggested that attempts to boost self-esteem will create narcissists and prove harmful. While I firmly believe self-esteem is not always a good thing (and that pride is a sin and humility a virtue) I am most certainly not convinced self-esteem is necessarily a bad thing. Just because self-worship is not something to be instilled in the young, I would not want to go to the other extreme of encouraging a lack of self-esteem. Self-hatred can be as incredibly selfish as self-love. So by all means let teachers raise self-esteem in their students, as long as that esteem is deserved as a result of academic achievement or good behaviour. I don’t mind if students feel good as a result of being educated or as being part of a healthy community. What I object to is the belief that “feeling good” takes priority over justice. This is, perhaps, inevitable at a time when trying to get students to feel good is also taking priority over education.



Elmer, Nicholas, 2001, Self-esteem: the Costs and Causes of Low Self-Worth, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York



  1. A healthy level of self-esteem is errr… healthy, just as pride in one’s country, appearance or work is good. It’s when it’s based on nothing worth being proud of, or carried to extremes that hurt others that it’s bad.

  2. […] Self-esteem isn’t bad if it’s based on academic achievement or good behavior, writes Old Andrew on Scenes from the Battleground. However, teachers are lead astray when they attribute bad behavior to insecurity: Most of the time when a teacher concludes that a badly behaved boy must secretly hate himself what the teacher actually feels that he should hate himself if he has any sense. […]

  3. Dear Old Andrew

    Without wishing to sound like a blogosphere lickspittle I wish to congratulate you on your excellent two part posting on Self Esteem.

    My profession, in particular, is responsible for the proliferation of these weasle words into the general parlance. However, as Mr Elmer points out, psychology has yet to find a reliable, measureable index of Self Esteem with which to rigourously assess the idea that it leads to disruption in the classroom.

    One of the major problems with social/human science is that it often becomes inextricable from value systems that even eminent professionals espouse. However, some authors espouse views which are more in line with reason or common sense (a term which makes the new Gnostics shudder at the thought that knowledge about the world is commonly available).

    Try The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman. Coming at it from a different angle and based on empirical research, this work supports your idea that doing well should be more important than feeling good.

  4. I have always been suspicious of the degree to which North American societies tie themselves into knots about self-esteem, as though it were the cure of ills and the lack of it were the cause of them. What if we were to stop trying to boost the self-esteem of problematic children and tried instead to boost their concern about and care for others? What if we placed as much emphasis on values like kindness and hard work as we did on the narcissistic goal of “feeling good about oneself”? I think promoting self-esteem misses the point in many ways. Esteem for the community and one’s place in it would probably lead to greater (perceived and actual) self-worth.

  5. Anyone interested in self-esteem ought to read this:
    before putting pen to paper in trying to explain underachievement, poor behaviour and anything else as caused by low self esteem. It appears that high self esteem can be more damaging, and, more importantly, that improving low self esteem did nothing to improve educational attaiment, IIRC.

  6. […] excuses for not punishing children and because it was something I blogged about years ago (here and here). In the United States the self-esteem seems to have had a huge impact, over many years. Singal […]

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