The Self-Esteem Generation

A few years ago, I taught a couple sections of a college composition course and was surprised to see that included on my list of texts was Jean Twenge’s book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable than Ever Before by Jean Twenge. We used it to engage in critical reading and also as a text to which we could apply various rhetorical concepts.

In the book, Twenge mentions a study by Harold Stevenson. The study found that American children rate quite highly at thinking they are good at math but score poorly when their math skills are actually assessed. Why the disparity? Twenge says it’s because of a self-esteem movement that we’ve taken on in homes, churches, and schools. Everyone gets a sticker on the spelling test, a trophy at the end of t-ball season. As a student and professor, it’s clear that my own field is as guilty as any. Teachers give higher grades away as a way to simply avoid uncomfortable conversations with students, parents, or administrators. I’m sure I’ve done this myself as an instructor and benefitted from it as a student.

And the consequences? Twenge quotes Maureen Stout, who said that “What the self-esteem movement really says to students is that their achievement is not important and their minds are not worth developing.” We’ve arguably created a society of people who cannot deal with constructive criticism. But Twenge also argues that we’ve produced another trait in what she calls Generation Me (everyone born from the 1970s on): wide-reaching amounts of narcissism. Think social media (or even blogs :)). We were told we were special growing up without really being required to demonstrate our special-ness, and thus we think very highly of ourselves, whether we’ve accomplished anything or not, and whether we are able to engage in meaningful relationships or not.

Is there an alternative to the status quo? Should we all become Tiger Moms instead?

Perhaps there is another option besides rigidness. I’ll call it affirmation. The difference between self-esteem curriculum and affirmation is nuanced but significant. We can’t really start a program for affirmation. In fact, I concede that self-esteem programs are way easier than providing authentic affirmation to a person. Whereas self-esteem advocacy can be pretty superficial, affirming someone necessarily involves knowing the person: his or her story, pain, triumphs. And once we know them, we can express our sincere gratitude and pride in who that person is, including but not limited to what that person is good at, what in that person makes you become more alive. Affirmation breeds trust, and after we trust, then we can also learn to hear constructive criticism without losing our propped-up self-esteem in the process. Perhaps if we nurtured each other with this kind of intention, we would people who are assured that they are loved, rather than a bunch of narcissists out to prove how great they are.

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