Winning Isn’t Everything

How the self-esteem movement has failed our kids


When my children were growing up, the self-esteem movement was in full swing. Everyone was intent on making kids feel good about themselves by praising them for their smallest accomplishments. Trophies became prevalent in sports, and end-of-year awards ceremonies ensured that every student received something to boast about. Yet, for all this, the movement failed to displace certain entrenched pockets of hierarchy. My son’s preschool, for example, which supported the progressive notion that every child is gifted, nonetheless chose a valedictorian and a salutatorian at the end of the year. Since my son was neither, this left him feeling confused. After all, he was only five.

Later, Little League relayed the same contradictory signals. Everyone could play, but only the good players got attention from the coaches. The bad ones were banished to positions the ball seldom reached.

In elementary school classrooms, children were told that they were all brilliant and creative, but that some students, apparently, were more brilliant and creative than others—i.e., those who were pulled out of the classroom for the Talented and Gifted Program. The selection of students for this program had something to do with their ability to fill out math worksheets and to sit still.

What is galling about the self-esteem movement is that it was never intelligently implemented. Kids may like trophies, but if everyone gets one, they learn soon enough not to value them. Moreover, the more such meaningless equalizers are distributed, the more other sorts of distinctions crop up to sift and sort students in ways that are more harmful than the rough and tumble sorting that existed before.

What is needed is a value-driven education—where we encourage all students to try hard, where we distinguish those who succeed and encourage the others to stretch themselves. Ability grouping at too young an age is the equivalent of profiling. Poor kids without culture in the home are inevitably going to lag behind and, once placed in the lower groups, will find it hard to move into the higher ones.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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