“Never criticise” is the mantra that we are all told these days when it comes to working with young people.
Teachers are told not to use red pens because it crushes the spirit. Instead of getting an ‘F’ for ‘fail’, you now get a ‘U’ for ‘ungraded’ – as if that will make you feel better! Or instead of giving people grades A-F we give them grades A-C but with stars for those who did particularly well, hence in the UK you can get an A*. All this because we want to wrap people in cotton wool, and shield them from the reality that there are some things they aren’t good at – all because telling them might harm their self esteem.
Of course there is some truth in it – for some have only known the harshest of voices and the sternest of criticism from those who should have been encouraging and loving.
But as often happens, we have swung to the opposite extreme, following our cousins across the Atlantic, we have swallowed the whole sickly nonsense of self-esteem. We tell ourselves that it is more productive to shower ourselves and others with praise.
So it was with interest that I read an article in the Times entitled “Forget self-esteem and learn some humility”. It seems that psychologists have discovered that showering ourselves with praise simply doesn’t work. Instead it produces people who only think that they are good at their job, but are unable to take even the mildest criticism.
Deborah Stipek, Dean of Education at Stanford University, revealed recently how she keeps a box of Kleenex in her office for students who, for the first time in their lives, receive tough feedback and can’t deal with it.
The conclusions of an in-depth analysis of the impacts of high self-esteem included the following: high self-esteem does not of itself earn children higher grades; it does not make people better at their jobs; a survey for the Harvard Business Review found that humility, rather than self-regard, is a better predictor of who will make a successful leader.
The author of the report, Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, writes “After all these years, I’m sorry to say, my recommendation is this: forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline.”
Interesting. That’s exactly what God says in his word.
“This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” declares the LORD. - Isaiah 66:2
Then Jesus said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” - Luke 9:23
In my line of work I sometimes hear the refrain, “I have no self-esteem”, and it has often made me wonder. After all, we are only reconstituted earth, which live in rebellion against its creator – what have we to be esteemed about? True esteem comes only when we realise our worthlessness, and guiltiness before God, and come to him seeking forgiveness. And then, when he forgives us and brings us into his family, we realise that we are more loved than we could ever have imagined. And that is where our esteem comes from. It isn’t to be found in ourselves – that is a modern-day version of the emperor’s new clothes.
Esteem is only worthwhile when it is realistic. And it is from God alone that we get a true sense of who we are.
“As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD's love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children's children-- with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.” - Psalm 103:15-18