All of a sudden, it’s become vogue to assert that American children have a very big problem: they like themselves too much. I was struck recently when I read two articles from the centrist, business-oriented publication The Economist. One, “You are not special,” implores young people to be less narcissistic as it favorably reviews a book by culture warrior David Brooks in which he gleefully champions repression. Another article, “American children are drowning in self-esteem,” asserts that our schools spend too much time getting kids to feel confident in their abilities and too little time actually teaching kids skills. It points out that our children, who tend to score around the middle of the pack in international testing, are often the most confident in their abilities. The horror!
The truth is, I don’t think our schools are mistaken in their focus on self-esteem. The unique and often tragic history of America necessitates some instillation of self-worth in children who would otherwise be told by systems of power that they do not matter. I’m speaking predominantly about students who belong to racial minorities, of course. In order to feel comfortable interacting with systems of power, which were established by and for white people, they must believe that they belong within these systems, and that they matter as human beings. Much of our culture tells them otherwise—why, exactly, is “Black Lives Matter” a controversial statement? The role of the teacher, for these students, is more than just making sure that they learn to read, write, and calculate. The teacher must also make sure that they learn to see themselves as truly equal in worthiness and ability to all of their peers. Indeed, there’s something slightly bitter about a group of old white men telling this generation, groaning under the weight of stress and discrimination, that their self-love is the problem with this country.
The reason that American schools stand out in their promotion of self-love is that it is unusual. Many cultures of the world place great value on being humble, to the point of self-diminishment. Artist Yang Liu’s minimalistic art comparing Eastern and Western society is brought to mind—in other cultures, people simply aren’t socialized to see themselves as particularly meaningful.
Why shouldn’t they be, though? Does anyone really think the world would be a better place if we all thought less of ourselves? I firmly believe that you’re more comfortable doing good things if you think you’re a good person, that you’re more comfortable taking risks if you think that you’re a capable person, that you’re more willing to take on extra work if you think you’re a smart person. Sometimes, simply believing that you’re more capable will give you all the confidence you need to succeed.
The teacher’s primary job is to teach students how to learn, but teachers can act as some of the biggest role models in children’s lives. Teachers have a responsibility to make sure that their students are well-prepared to enter the workforce. More privileged children are taught confidence and entitlement by their parents from a very young age, while less privileged children often rely on the schooling system to teach them the power of self-confidence. In order for kids to succeed, they need to believe that they deserve to succeed. I think that we should offer that to them.