Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Next Step

"The best way to build confidence in students is just by telling them how much ability you see in 

-Ron Clark

"Who told you you could sing?"
"My singing teacher."
"She lied."

- American Idol Auditions, 2008

I recall when I first heard the term "self-esteem."  It was the mid-1980's and I was in elementary school, when suddenly it seemed that the words "self-esteem" were being uttered every five minutes by parents, educators, and media gadflies.  It seemed that it was the mission of every adult to foster and nurture self-esteem, which meant the following things:

1. Never, ever, ever, tell a child he or she didn't do something well.
2. Never, ever, ever, tell a child he or she won't be able to do something.
3. Never, ever, ever, tell a child he or she isn't skilled or talented at anything.
4. Praise children for anything and everything.
5. Encourage children to set long-term goals without regard to practicality or feasibility.

I firmly believe the "self-esteem" craze of the 1980's is responsible for a lot of screwed up adults in the 2000's.  It was such a "boomer" thing to do, right?  The same generation who believed that the way to intellectual enlightenment was drug use and loud music decides that negative must always equal bad, that children must be nurtured in a completely positive environment at all times.

(Re. "Boomers": Please understand that I don't believe that every individual born between 1940 and 1960 is flawed.  Just the ones that keep yapping about Vietnam and Woodstock and how all culture and art came to a standstill around 1974.  Those guys.)

Self-esteem was just one of the conspirators in our vast national murder of the concept of "shame."  It use to be that "shame" was a potent force in our society for enforcing a sort of general moral code.  Sometimes it was good, sometimes not so good.  Some things that used to be stigmas are now not only accepted, but embraced and promoted.  Sometimes that's good, sometimes, not so much.

It is interesting to me that, as a society, we seem to be completely incapable of anything other than the most extreme reactions.  We either shun or celebrate.  We love or loathe.  We condemn or glorify.  While individuals are more than capable of making fine distinctions, as a society, we stink at nuance.  So, rather than say, "You know, negative reinforcement makes some children shut down and become self-defeating, so we should really examine how we use negative reinforcement and start using targeted positive enforcement," we say, "You can't tell Suzy that she can't sing!  It will scar her for life!"

This is why we have American Idol.  This makes sense to you if you are like me and mainly watch the early shows, in which the laughably bad takes the spotlight.  You see dozens of people, every year, who seem sincerely convinced not only that they can sing, but that they can sing better than anyone else in the world.  These people are also equally deluded on their physical attractiveness and personality.  Part of our national fun is watching Simon Cowell, speaking for so many of us, skewer these people and deflate them in public.  That's our *real* national opinion on self-esteem: we all really do recognize that it's a crock, and Simon Cowell telling the woman with three teeth and three hundred pounds that she isn't the next Jennifer Lopez affirms it.

That's not the real story, though.  The real story is when the auditioner, after being told by three music industry professionals that he or she has no shot at fame, or even a living, leaves.  The person, more often than not, confesses either angrily or tearfully that he or she will never give up, that Simon doesn't know what he is talking about, that he or she really IS the next American Idol.  That is how deeply erroneous self-esteem can root: it takes self-esteem into self delusion.

Everyone should love themselves.  But self-love is like loving another person: you can't do it blindly.  We love our spouses and friends with knowledge of their flaws.  Why can't we do that with ourselves?  If I can love someone with bad skin, or bad morning breath, or explosive flatulence, why can't I acknowledge flaws in myself and love myself anyway?  (For the record, Sven does not have bad skin.)

I'll say it: I love myself.  I'm overweight and have crooked teeth.  I don't have terrific skin; in fact, I have some extremely strange hairs that have developed facially that I'm bothered by.  I have webbed toes.  In fact, my feet resemble Fred Flintstone's.  I'm short.  I have accepted that I CAN NEVER achieve in the following professions:

  • Fashion Model (even plus-size, I'm too short)
  • Toothpaste spokesperson
  • Sandal wearer
  • Guest star on "Law & Order" (can't carry off a smart business suit)
  • Teen idol
  • And many more!
My point is, if you tell a 15-year-old who is caterwauling "Can't Be Tamed" for the school talent show that she will be a star someday, it might feel like a kindness.  It might make her feel good for the moment.   But sometimes we have to think long-term, and go with the smile and the "I'm so proud of you for trying" answer.

I'd rather they hear it from me than from Simon.