Reality Check: The Self-Esteem Myth Revisited

Editor’s Note: Since we’re celebrating our 50th Anniversary this year, we thought it’d be appropriate to dig back into the archives and see what The Heights was like in the decades that brought us here. Today we go back 14 years to 2005 when Joe Cardenas wrote an article about self-esteem. 

Self-Esteem Boosts and Our Culture’s Flight from Reality

Reality Check! We hear this expression in our daily interactions and the evening news alike. It’s normally used when a person or an institution has drifted away from the facts. A Reality Check hopes to bring a person back down to reality—to the truth. There’s something final about facts; something clear and definite that we can’t escape. Yet, as educators—parents and teachers alike—we many times deviate from that reality and make use of the proverbial “self-esteem boost” to encourage our children to improve.

When self-esteem is firmly rooted in reality, it means self-respect and self-knowledge. It’s a person’s healthy internal attitude towards the self. Self-esteem is what allows a person—who is fully aware of his shortcomings and defects—to rise above them and live a noble life.

Unfortunately, in our current educational environment, self-esteem has other meanings. Many believe it to be a panacea, a cure-all, for a child’s academic and personal troubles: boost a child’s self-esteem—with complete disregard for reality—and, voila, all his troubles will disappear.

During my first year as a teacher, fresh out of an enlightened Berkeley education, I remember giving a passing grade to a student who had clearly failed. My thinking was, if this young man receives an F, his self-esteem will be hurt. Right? Wrong. Tom—that was the boy’s name—came to my office later that day. He wanted me to change the grade. Tom knew he didn’t deserve it. It wasn’t his grade; it was my grade. I then saw the light: my job as an educator wasn’t—isn’t—to give grades and make my students feel good. It is to lead each and every one of my students to face and engage with reality. Boosting a child’s self-esteem when there’s no reality that warrants it, is not only useless but could even be harmful to the child’s development. He will sooner or later realize that there’s a discrepancy between what we say and his personal experience.

The more connected a person is with reality, the more mature a person is. That’s why it’s possible for a teenager to be mature and for a 40-year-old person to be immature. One only has to think of the middle-aged man who acts like a frat boy. In these cases people fail to face reality: they are young no more. Their attempts to hide from or avoid this reality are a sign of immaturity.

Reality is always good for us and for our children. Many times reality is painful and unpleasant: an illness, the death of a loved one. Or it may just be our personal defects or a failing grade. Ignoring reality or running away from it won’t change anything. When we face it and help our children to accept it, we grow in maturity and self-understanding. Ignoring it or rejecting it will prevent us and our children from maturing.

Joe Cardenas – ca. 2007

Our first job as educators is to lead a child to self-knowledge. That’s the child’s most immediate and intimate reality. If he’s lazy, he needs to know it. It things don’t come naturally, he needs to know that as well. How can we expect a child to know the world outside if he doesn’t know the world inside? Our ability to grasp and understand reality hinges on our knowing ourselves: our gifts and talents as well as our defects and shortcomings. Too much knowledge of one and not enough of the other blurs and distorts our perception of reality.

Parents, the primary educators, and teachers need to put the goal of the child’s self-knowledge first. Praising a child so he may like us or refusing to correct him lest he dislike us is simply selfish on our part. How and when we correct a child should, therefore, be guided by a sense of respect and love for the child, not our personal feelings.

Our goal should always be to guide every child to self-knowledge with great respect for his feelings and personality. For that reason, we may want to delay a correction or hold our praise depending on the circumstances. Before correcting or praising a child we should ask ourselves what our motivation is. Selfishness is never a good motive. Ultimately our effectiveness as educators will depend on our knowing and loving the child in front of us.

Joe Cardenas

About the author:

Joe Cardenas


Joe Cardenas is the Head of the Mentoring program at The Heights. Mr. Cardenas also teaches The Freshman Core and AP Art History. Since coming to The Heights in 1994, he has organized cultural trips to Spain and Italy and service projects in Mexico and Peru. Mr. Cardenas completed his undergraduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a degree in American history; he received his M.A. in Private School Management from Columbia University. He taught at The Head-Royce School, an independent school in California, and at inner-city programs in Chicago and the Bronx before joining The Heights faculty.

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